A Plea for Strength

A Reflection on Psalm 69.1-20 by Canon Rob
Psalm for Evensong 24th March 2024, Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a major festival in the Church’s year and one which I have always looked upon as a celebration. The hymns today are mostly joyful: “All glory, Laud and honour” and “Ride on, ride on in majesty” are just two traditionally sung. This is the day when we remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Riding on a donkey, he is greeted by a huge crowd of people who praise God and shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!…Hosanna in the highest heaven!” [Mark.11.9-10] Yet one of the Gospel Readings set for our Eucharist today is from the fourteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and is the beginning of what the New English Bible calls “The Final Conflict.” During the coming week, Holy Week, we learn how the shouts of joy quickly turn to calls for Jesus’ death. So it is not surprising that the psalm for this evening is a desperate cry for help. The first verse sets the mood perfectly: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up, even to my neck.” The picture above says it all and the first twenty verses of Psalm 69, which are recited this evening, are full of gloom. The psalm itself ends on an encouraging note but verse 20 leaves us on a cliff hanger rather like watching the first of a two part thriller: “Draw near to my soul and redeem me; deliver me because of my enemies.” How will it finish?

Rabbi Cohen, a Jewish commentator on the psalms, says of Psalm 69, “A devout servant of God is undergoing cruel treatment and feels that his sufferings are due to his religious loyalty.” You will see this very clearly as you reflect on verses 8 – 12. Like many today, the author of the psalm is being persecuted for his faith. What makes this even more tragic is in verse 9: “I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.” Even his siblings have turned their backs on him! This makes the scorn, referred to in verse 10 even more difficult to bear. Then, to add to his burden: “Those who sit at the gate murmur against me,…” [Verse 13]. Commentators sometimes suggest that the authors had a particular event or person in mind when writing a psalm. Such is the case here. For example, it is suggested by Rabbi Cohen again that the author had the prophet Jeremiah in mind and in the introduction to the Book of Jeremiah in my copy of the Good News Bible, I find these words: “Jeremiah was a sensitive man who deeply loved his people and who hated to have to pronounce judgement upon them….he spoke with deep emotion about the things he suffered because God called him to be a prophet…” [You will find references about this in Jeremiah 8.18-21 and 11.18-23].

And this brings us back to Palm Sunday and Jesus: Jesus, who was far more than a prophet, who deeply loved people, but who also spoke of God’s judgement. We rightly look upon Palm Sunday as a day to celebrate Jesus’ entry into the Holy City. However, we know that in a few days, the shouts of “Hosanna” will become cries of “Crucify him!” You may find it helpful then to reflect upon these verses of Psalm 69, imagining that it is Jesus saying them. This psalm is often quoted in the New Testament, second only to Psalm 22 which Jesus quoted from the Cross and which begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and are so far from my salvation, from the words of my distress?” Is this the same distress expressed in verse 19 of Psalm 69? “Hide not your face from your servant; be swift to answer me, for I am in trouble.” In both is the experience of feeling abandoned by God which is especially painful because the author of the psalm, like Jesus, offered his life in the service of God. Today’s psalm is recalled in St John’s Gospel when Jesus cleansed the Temple. After Jesus had criticised the stall-holders for making his “Father’s House a market place”, John says, “His disciples remembered that it is written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.” [John 2.16 & 17]. We know what happened to Jesus as a result of his zealousness. We can only guess what happened to the author of Psalm 19.

O God, our helper and defender, deliver us in our weakness, answer our longings
and vindicate our faith, that we may see your glory in Jesus Christ our Lord. [Common Worship, Daily Prayer]

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