Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 3


Psalm 26

The two psalms we have so far considered in this series were unfamiliar perhaps primarily because they were quite like other better known psalms. It might be thought that they contain nothing that can’t be found in other and better known psalms of the same type. Of course the Lord put them in his Book and so there is something very important for us in each one of them, but it may be that their importance is primarily the emphasis that certain vital teaching receives from repetition.

Tonight, however, we have a psalm that I think is unfamiliar because, in a certain way, it is not believed. It presents us with a form of words we would never use and can’t think of using, and, as a result, we find the psalm irrelevant or positively confusing. As a result it is not memorized and when it is read it is quickly passed by.

Psalm 26

Psalm 26 is, in some important respects, like Psalm 1 and also Psalm 14, the psalm we considered last time, with its contrast of the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the unrighteous. But here in Psalm 26 the contrast is more vivid because it is more personal; it is not left abstract as in those other two psalms. David identifies himself as the righteous man and compares himself favorably to the unrighteous.

Now the problem is immediately obvious, is it not? Who among us would say, would dare to say, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.” And, then, to make it worse, that thought is repeated, as a kind of inclusio, at the end of psalm, in v. 11: “But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity…” David is not only saying that he has walked before the Lord in faithfulness but that he will continue to do so. It sounds boastful. It sounds presumptuous. It sounds as though this man – David indeed – had a very inadequate view of himself. What of his many sins? What of his daily failures to love God and his neighbor with heart and soul and strength? Paul had the honesty to admit that, though he was most certainly a Christian, though he had been saved by the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, he nevertheless remained a daily sinner, so much so, indeed, that Paul once referred to himself, long years into his Christian life, as a “bondslave of sin.” What man who knows that about himself is going to speak of his having lived in integrity? More to the point, what man who knows himself still to be an inveterate sinner, would appeal to God on the strength of the goodness, faithfulness and the righteousness of his life? The NIV renders the statement in v. 1 “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have led a blameless life.” Blameless? Really?  

Sometimes the problem is resolved too quickly by imagining or supposing that by this form of words, by this way of speaking – whether “walk in integrity” or “live a blameless life” – we can read the psalm as if David spoke of his integrity or blamelessness as simply another way of referring to his justification by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. That is, David was saying that he had walked in integrity because it was Christ’s life, not his own, that was the life he had to offer to God to judge and measure. I may not have been blameless he is saying, but Christ was blameless for me, and it is his blamelessness, not mine, to which I am appealing. For example, Augustine says on this sentence in Psalm 26:

“Not my merits but your mercy is before my eyes.”

The problem with that way of interpreting David’s words is that it is untrue to the remainder of the psalm. From verse 1 onward David is talking about the character of his own life, about his way of life, his deeds, his behavior.

  1. “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering…”
  2. “…I walk in your faithfulness.”
  3. “I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites.”
  4. “I proclaim your wondrous deeds.”
  5. “I love your house…”

 

The psalm is a description, with specifics, of David’s life as a life lived in Christian integrity. It is not the life of Christ that is being described but David’s life. It is not the righteousness of Christ imputed to David that makes it possible for him to say that he “walked in my integrity” but his own righteous life and behavior. Indeed, David goes so far as to ask the Lord to test him, to try him. The Lord will find that David’s life is as he has described it to be. David wants the Lord to be his judge. He is sure he will stand in God’s judgment. He knows what his life has been and how he has lived it and that the Lord will, accordingly, vindicate him.

As we read in vv. 4 and 5, David knows that he is not like other men, unbelieving men, and that there is a profound difference between them. And the difference lies in the way they both live. I have from time to time, as perhaps you remember, speaking both here and elsewhere, after having read out Psalm 26:1, asked congregations: “How many of you can say that: that you have walked in your integrity, that you have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” And when I have asked those who can say that to raise their hands, nary a hand goes up. They are quite sure that this is not the way Christians should speak. I think most of them – however difficult it may be for them to explain how this is so – think that this is the kind of thing that an OT saint might say, but we NT Christians know better. The gospel has taught us to say that we are unworthy and that our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness, not our own.

But the fact of the matter is, the same outlook expressed in Psalm 26 is also found everywhere in the NT. There too we read again and again of the difference between believers and unbelievers, even highly religious unbelievers. When Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we will not enter heaven (Matt. 5:20), he is not talking about our justification, the perfect righteousness we obtain by faith in Christ. He is talking about our living, our behavior. He is saying very emphatically that we have to live better than the scribes and Pharisees if we expect to go to heaven. The whole sermon is about the difference being a disciple of Jesus makes in a real believer’s life and how that difference will express itself.  Remember the beatitudes with which the sermon begins. They are a profile of the Christian life and, accordingly, of a description of Christian character and behavior. They are, the Lord says very explicitly, a profile of the sort of person who goes to heaven: he or she is poor in spirit, pure in heart, meek, merciful, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, a peacemaker, and so committed to God that he or she is willing to suffer for Christ’s sake. And on the sermon goes describing the daily living of a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. It is a life better than the life of a Pharisee, as it must be.

But that is just the beginning. Jesus said, you remember, that you would be able to identify his followers by the lives they lead: “by their fruit you will know them.” You know how often Christians are described in the NT as “saints,” that is, “holy ones.” So holy are their lives that John says, with a daring lack of qualification,

“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil…” [1 Jn 3:6-8]

Every Christian, in other words, says John, should be able to say, “I don’t sin.” Or ask yourself this question: when David says that he lived in his integrity, when Joshua says that he wholly followed the Lord his God (Josh. 14:8-9), when Job repeatedly claims that he was blameless before the Lord, how are these statements different from Paul saying, at the end of his life,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7)?

However David’s statement in Psalm 26:1 strikes you at first, the statement David makes about himself is the same statement the Lord later makes about David. In 1 Kings 9:4, for example, the Lord says to Solomon as he begins his reign:

“And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and rules…”

The Lord said to Solomon, “Your father did that, lived the right way, now you must too.” Job, who claimed that he was blameless before the Lord and had walked in integrity, was vindicated by the Lord at the end of the book. Paul, you remember, sometimes recounted his faithfulness to the Lord and the work of the Gospel at some length to counter the public criticism of his ministry by his theological adversaries. Or, take one more illustration of this phenomenon in Holy Scripture: how are these declarations of faithfulness to the Lord different from the requirement in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 that an elder must be blameless. Obviously the church is supposed to find that some men are blameless, that is, that they have walked before the Lord in integrity.

Whatever we are to do with Psalm 26:1, we do not find here a statement that is not typical of the entire Bible. It is in fact like a host of other statements you find throughout the Bible. This way of speaking of believers and by believers is found everywhere in the Word of God. Which is to say, we Christians today have to reckon with David’s claim and his confident appeal to God’s judgment. We have to learn to do the same thing. There are prayers in the Bible you folk are not praying. The reason you are not praying them is perhaps because you do not think you can. You are not praying for God to vindicate your life because you have walked in your integrity because  you feel like your life is not worth his vindication. But we must be able to make the same claim David did; it is a claim that all true believers in God can make and should. “I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.” Not only should we make that claim, but we can make it. Let me explain.

First, by saying that he walked in his integrity, David is not saying that he was sinless. Not by any means! We not only have the record of his checkered life – his sins as a husband, his sins as a father, his sins as an army commander – but we have his own testimony to his continuing sinfulness, just as we have Paul’s.

Here is David in Psalm 38:3-4:

“…there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.”

Here is David in Psalm 40:12.

“For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me.”

Here is David in Psalm 143:2 speaking not only of himself but of all men:

“Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”

However you take David in Psalm 26:1, when he speaks of walking in his integrity, you cannot forget that he is, at the same time, conscious, deeply conscious of his own continuing sinfulness. He had many more sins than his sin with Bathsheba! And we find the same thing to be the case in the New Testament. However we read John’s startling assertion that the true believer does not sin in 1 John 3, we cannot take it in a way that contradicts the statement made earlier in the same letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In the same way, we cannot take Paul’s assertion that he had kept the faith in 2 Tim. 4 to mean that he was not still an inveterate sinner, as he admits himself to be in Romans 7:14-25.

Second, this attribution of righteousness, faithfulness, and integrity is made in the context of God’s gracious covenant with his people. Psalm 26 is a covenantal psalm. It makes sense only as an expression of life in covenant with God. In the covenant, as you know, God extends to his people his mercy and forgiveness as well as summoning them to a new kind of life of obedience and service. And that is clearly part of the context of this psalm. Some of David’s righteousness, some of his integrity is found precisely in the fact that he sought and secured the forgiveness of his many sins in precisely that way God had told him to obtain forgiveness. That too was part of his walking in integrity.

In verses 6 and 7, for example, David paints a picture of himself at the sanctuary, participating in the worship of the altar. In v. 6 there is a reference to the laver, the large basin of water that stood between the altar and the sanctuary (in David’s time still a tent, not yet a building). From the laver the priests obtained the water with which they washed their hands and feet before approaching either the altar or the sanctuary. Now David could not have used water from that laver, it was for the priests alone. So here it seems to serve as a metaphor for his own concern for his purity before the Lord, a purity that came not only through obedience but first and foremost through the atonement made on the altar and through the other aspects of sacrificial and ceremonial worship – all of which, as we know, prefigured the atonement that Jesus Christ would make for us his people.

Again, in v. 8 we read of David’s love for the house of the Lord, which is another way of saying his love for the worship of the Lord that took place at that sanctuary. You have the same idea in the last verse of the Psalm where he sees himself standing with the congregation at worship at the sanctuary (there were no pews at the tabernacle or the temple). A significant part of his walking in integrity is his availing himself of the blessings and benefits that the Lord has placed for his people in the worship of his house. There he confesses and receives the forgiveness of his sins, there he lifts his heart in gratitude to God and is reminded of God’s great goodness to him, there he hears the Word of God and is challenged in his faith and obedience, there he communes with the Lord over a meal and is reminded of the extraordinary condescension of the Lord in stooping to welcome a sinful man into fellowship with himself. All of that too is David’s walking in integrity just as surely as his obedience to God’s commandments, his separating himself from sinful men, and his refusal, as in v. 10, to practice deceit, to cheat, or to lie – which sins are all compressed in the giving and receiving of a bribe which people high up in government are particularly tempted to do.

And you see all of this once more, and strikingly, in v. 11, where he not only repeats his claim to walk in his integrity in the present and the future, but in the same breath asks the Lord to redeem him and to be gracious to him. This is not a man who is depending upon himself, or who is speaking of his life in tones of proud self-accomplishment. This is a man who is living in God’s gracious covenant and walking with God as the faithful always have and will. Still sinful? Yes, of course. But really faithful? Absolutely, as true believers always are. What is this man saying? What is his claim?  He is saying that he is loyal to God’s covenant. It is his life. It is his choice. He takes his stand with the Lord and with the Lord’s people. He finds his strength in the worship of God and so cherishes the Lord’s house and he rejoices in the opportunity to keep God’s commandments and glorify him.

You see, the fact is there is a great difference between you and the unbelievers around you. Your life is defined by God’s covenant; theirs is not. The differences between you as a result are obvious enough but when tracked down to their root they are more dramatic still. This is something you must never forget; you are, in the language of Holy Scripture, a saint, not a sinner. Your sin, real as it is, is not characteristic of your truest self; it is your loyalty to God’s covenant that is your defining characteristic.

When David asks the Lord to “prove” him, or “test” him in v. 2, he is confident that what the Lord will find is what the Lord ought to find when he tests the life of one of his people. Obviously sinlessness is not what the Lord expects to find, but covenant faithfulness and loyalty expressing itself in all the ways that it will: in conviction of sin, in desire for righteousness, in real obedience and faithfulness however imperfect, in the love of God’s house and worship, in confidence in the Lord’s redemption and mercy – all the things we find in Psalm 26.

That word “prove” or “test,” the first word of v. 2 is an interesting word. It is used originally of the testing of metals. How pure are they? In the ancient world the only way one could tell the purity of a metal was by smelting. A Babylonian king, Burnaburiash II, who reigned from 1367-1346 B.C, wrote to the Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenophis IV:

“Concerning the emissary you sent: the twenty minas of gold which he brought were not pure, for when it was put in the furnace, only five minas were produced.” [O. Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World, 183]

That process then here in Psalm 26 becomes a metaphor for testing the heart and the life. David is saying to the Lord, “When you test me in the smelter you’ll find twenty minas of righteousness. They are not going to disappear when you put them in the fire. You are going to find a genuine covenant man.” Commentators think that the idea may also include the notion of purification itself, so that the very process of testing not only reveals but purifies as more of the dross is burned away. [Keel, 184; Hakham, i, 198]

Let me illustrate this I hope helpfully and encouragingly for you all from a completely different dimension of life and performance: playing an instrument, or, better, practicing a musical instrument. I’m going to read you a section from a new book that Craig DesJardins loaned me. It is Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. I have read a number of reviews of this book: some very positive, others quite negative. Apparently, from what I gather, the thesis of the book holds true in significant measure for certain kinds of skill, mostly physical and repetitive activities. It has little to say regarding how to cultivate creativity, invention, or other forms of artistry. But in regard to how to learn to play a piano or dribble a soccer ball, the book distills a good bit of new knowledge and new thinking. Of course we are all interested in knowing how to make ourselves more talented and more skillful. Listen to Daniel Coyle’s opening illustration.

Coyle is looking to explain why in certain places and under certain regimes, what he calls certain talent hotbeds, talent grows so quickly. Some of his chief examples are sports or the playing of instruments and those sorts of things. And he uses as an illustration of the phenomenon he wishes to explain and illustrate in the book – that is, talent growing remarkably quickly – a video produced by two Australian researchers of a thirteen year-old clarinet student who has amazed these music psychologists with the speed at which she learns. Here is Coyle.

On screen, Clarissa does not look particularly talented. She wears a blue hooded sweatshirt, gym shorts, and an expression of sleepy indifference. [Some of you parents are already identifying with this.] In fact, until the six minutes captured on the video, Clarissa had been classified as a musical mediocrity. According to…aptitude tests and the testimony of her teacher, her parents, and herself, Clarissa possessed no musical gifts. She lacked a good ear; her sense of rhythm was average, her motivation subpar. (In the study’s written section, she marked ‘because I’m supposed to’ as her strongest reason for practicing.) [I feel a real kinship with this girl!] Nonetheless, Clarissa had become famous in music-science circles. Because on an average morning McPherson’s camera captured this kid doing something distinctly un-average. In five minutes and fifty-four seconds, she accelerated her learning speed by ten times, according to McPherson’s calculations. What was more, she didn’t even notice.

McPherson sets up the clip for us: It’s morning, Clarissa’s customary time for practice, a day after her weekly lesson. She is working on a new song entitled ‘Golden Wedding,’ a 1941 tune by jazz clarinetist Woody Herman. She’s listened to the song a few times. She likes it. Now she’s going to try to play it.

Clarissa draws a breath and plays two notes. Then she stops. She pulls the clarinet from her lips and stares at the paper. Her eyes narrow. She plays seven notes, the song’s opening phrase. She misses the last note and immediately stops, fairly jerking the clarinet from her lips. She squints again at the music and sings the phrase softly. ‘Dah day dum dah,’ she says.

She starts over and plays the riff from the beginning, making it a few notes farther into the song this time, missing the last note, backtracking, patching in the fix. The opening is beginning to snap together – the notes have verve and feeling. When she’s finished with this phrase, she stops again for six long seconds, seeming to replay it in her mind, fingering the clarinet as she thinks. She leans forward, takes a breath, and starts again.

It sounds pretty bad. It’s not music; it’s a broken-up, fitful slow-motion batch of note riddled with stops and misses. Common sense would lead us to believe that Clarissa is failing. But in this case common sense would be dead wrong.

‘This is amazing stuff,’ McPherson says…. This is how a professional musician would practice on Wednesday for a Saturday performance.

On screen Clarissa leans into the sheet music, puzzling out a G-sharp that she’s never played before. She looks at her hand, then at the music, then at her hand again. She hums the riff. Clarissa’s posture is tilted forward; she looks a though she is walking into a chilly wind; her sweetly freckled face tightens into a squint. She plays the phrase again and again. Each time she adds a layer of spirit, rhythm, swing.

‘Look at that,’ McPherson says. ‘She’s got a blueprint in her mind she’s constantly comparing herself to. She’s working in phrases, complete thoughts. She’s not ignoring errors, she’s hearing them, fixing them. She’s fitting small parts into the whole, drawing the lens in and out all the time, scaffolding herself to a higher level.

This is not ordinary practice. This is something else: a highly targeted, error-focused process. Something is growing, being built. The song begins to emerge, and with it, a new quality within Clarissa.

This is not a picture of talent produced by genes; it’s something far more interesting. It is six minutes of an average person entering a magically productive zone, one where more skill is created with each passing second.” [2-5]

Talent grows, and grows rapidly, Coyle argues and illustrates at great length, by this “targeted, error-focused” practice, what he calls “deep practice.” It is how small schools here and there around the world have become famous for turning out one world class performer after another, after another, after another. They teach this kind of practice. Each mistake is made an opportunity to learn, to correct, to improve. Concentration on errors and putting them right is the key.

Now, I can’t speak to the psychological study of progress in music practicing. But I thought as I read that piece in the early chapters of the book that it was a wonderful description, however unintentional, of what ought to be true in any Christian’s life. You don’t ignore the errors – and there are plenty of them – you fix them. You can because of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit within you and the Word of God that has given you a blueprint for your life. You have an idea of what you are to achieve: the picture of a godly life in the law of God, the examples of the godly given us in Holy Scripture, the Christian living of the godly folk you know. And you try to live it a few notes at a time. When you get stopped, you read, think, squint and pray, and start again. But always there is this concentration on the task, to live a life that is faithful to the God who brought us into covenant with himself. That is what it means to live in integrity.

Is that not what we have here in Psalm 26? David lives his life as a godly man. He stumbles, to be sure, and he tells us he stumbles all the time as we all do, but because he belongs to the covenant he knows that those stumbles are errors to be repented of and fixed. He pauses, as it were, goes round the laver and the altar again to gain forgiveness and to clear his head, and he starts again. That is how the Christian life is lived in this world and that is how it grows. Its great characteristic is intention! The desire to be God’s man or God’s woman, a desire that directs our steps both when we do what we should – play the right note – and when we fail. It’s great characteristic is intention.

Psalm 26 is an important psalm to know because it depicts at a profound level a Christian worldview and in particular a Christian’s view of himself or herself. It teaches an understanding of the Christian life in its positive ideal. You can say what David said of himself here. You absolutely can. You want to live in faithfulness to God’s covenant. You want to be God’s man or God’s woman; God’s boy or God’s girl. You make mistakes – you surely do and will – but the covenant provides for that. That doesn’t put you outside or ruin your chance. No, from the mistakes you learn what must be done and how better to do it, just like our young clarinetist.

Psalm 26 is important because it reminds us so clearly, so daringly even, that this is our life. We are tempted very often to think that we are failures when, in fact, we are learning how to play. You are not yet ready for the stage at Carnegie Hall, but you are getting there and will get there eventually. But if you forget this, if you become discouraged, you will fail to realize that by concentrating on and correcting your errors you are not only being God’s man or woman or child but you are becoming rapidly more and more his man, or woman or child.

It is precisely David’s confidence, his assurance, his knowledge that he is in covenant with God and living out the life of a covenant keeper that we are supposed to have as well. We are not to think of our Christian lives as perhaps something, but as really, genuinely something. We are to take the same encouragement, the same confidence, and the same assurance away from this Psalm that David had when he wrote. And a false understanding of the gospel can take that confidence and that assurance away. Of course you are a screw-up. Who ever learned to play the piano or the clarinet without making mistakes by the thousands? But you are also a saint, whose mistakes and whose trips around the altar and whose dips in the laver are forming Christ in you; whose own concentrated gaze, your squint at the notes on the page of the Word of You’re your concentrating, seeing it, not moving until you can really see it here and what it looks like in flesh and blood to live that life, is taking you step by step not to musical stardom, but to a Christ-like life.