Lecture 11: Petition Psalms
Login to download lecture and curriculum
There are three common sub-motifs in the petition psalms.
I. General Information
A. The Genre of the Psalms
B. David is Identified as ‘I’
C. Life Settings
III. The Enemies
A. Ways of Referring to the Enemy
B. Gunkel and Mowinckel Sometimes Misguided Interpretation
IV. The Motifs
A. Five Motifs
B. The Petition Motif
C. The Confidence Motif
V. The Conclusion
Course: Psalms by Dr. Bruce Waltke
Lecture 11: Petition Psalms
I. General Information
We will now discuss the petition psalms. We have been learning different approaches, from the historical and now the form critical approach. As already stated, there are three principle kinds of psalms: hymns which praise God, grateful songs of praise and petition psalms. There is a form of Psalms that Gunkel didn’t discuss, the instruction psalm. Periodically, the editors entered a psalm exhorting the Law of the Lord. These psalms could have been added later, we don’t know. We saw that the first psalm was given as an introduction for those who meditate on the Word of God. Again, as we have said, a main psalm is the hymn which we analyzed in Psalm 92, a Psalm of Grateful Praise.
Today’s lecture starts on page 130 of our notes; a very large section which we will slowly consider. The petitions are the dominant sounds within the Psalms. In this section, I have used a lot of Gunkel’s details which I will skim along with you. I’ve divided this lecture into three main sections: Part 1 – Introduction; this covers most of the basic materials. Part 2 (P 162 – Notes) includes a major problem within the petition psalms. This involves the Psalmist praise that God will punish the enemy. This is inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. They are asking God to bring judgement upon the wicked. You don’t get this in the New Testament. The depth in which this is illustrated is problematic for many Christians and it is an issue that needs to be addressed. I wish I had added a third section at the end of the chapter in regards to the theology of the Psalm. I will touch upon the theology of the petition psalms and summarize this as part 3 which is not in the notes. This will have some fundamental ideas about the theology that we can get from the petition psalms.
So what is the name of this genre? We will look at the petition psalms and afterward deeply analyze the psalm in-depth to the point that the aroma or beauty of the psalm dissipates. This is unfortunate but necessary because the information is so deep. You need to know that Gunkel really didn’t understand the Royal interpretation of the psalm. You had to understand the ‘I’ as the king and the people as being in cooperative solidarity with one another. As already mentioned, a major motif of the petition psalms is the mention of the enemy from your notes on page 141. We will include a whole section on the enemy as such. Finally, on page 145, I discuss the motifs of the petition which have distinct elements: address, complaint, petition, and confidence. They have praise at the end of them.
A. The Genre of Psalms
So, what psalms are we talking about? Who is the individual, the ‘I’ of the psalm? In Gunkel’s time, it was thought that the ‘I’ was the whole community, not an individual. Where did these psalms originate? What were their various life settings? Number wise, there are about fifty different psalms in this group, representing a third of the salter. These are Pss 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 9—10; 13; 14 ( =53); 17; 22; 25; 26; 27:7-14; 28; 31; 35; 36; 38; 39; 40:12—17; 42; 43; 51; 52; 54; 55; 56; 57; 59; 61; 63; 64; 69; 70 ( = 40:13—17); 71; 86; 88; 89:38-51; 102; 109; 120; 130; 139; 140; 141; 142 and 143. Of the fifty, forty-seven mention the enemy. Psalm 4 is one that doesn’t mention the enemy because the crisis was about a drought. I mentioned above that the major elements were address, complaint, petition with praise at the end. One of these motifs that run through all these psalms, the lament; this can be divided between lamenting a situation; for example, your sin, a penitential psalm verses a complaint, a protest, something that isn’t right. So sometimes they are called lament psalms and sometimes call complaint psalms. The different motifs create a different terminology sometimes. This is why I have given it the title Petition Psalm. Moberley says that the predominance of the laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but rather are central to the life of faith. This can be said for us, the difficulties and stress in our lives is at the heart of our faith and it is the triumph of God in our distress. There must be a gap between virtue and its rewards. I have said this several times. If God rewarded our virtue, immediately we would use God. We would worship him for our own self-gratification. Instead of us being his servant, he would be our servant and that is how we would use God.
We know that Moses dealt with this same thing with the people of Israel. And remember what Agra said, ‘don’t give me too much, for if I have too much, I will say who is the Lord? I don’t need him anymore.’ It is when we are in need and in distress that we need God. So, this gapping enables us not to confound worship and morality with pleasure; otherwise, if he rewarded us immediately, it would be for our pleasure and not for our spiritual good. We see in Deuteronomy 8:1 ‘the whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. So he humbled you and tested you in that wilderness so that you would know to obey and depend upon God. He warns the people that prosperity can be and invidious enemy of their lives. When you have eaten and not satisfied, praise God for the good land he has given you. Be careful when you prosper that you don’t forget God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees. Be careful that your hearts don’t become proud and forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. You may say to yourself, my power and the strength of my hand have produced this wealth for me. But remember, the Lord your God, it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.’ It is a danger that we forget God and become self-confident, self-assured and use God for our pleasure. Hence, there is a gap (a length of time) where we must go through suffering to build our character.
So, the gap between virtue and its reward is essential for spiritual life. Were prayers answered immediately the petitioner would confound pleasure with morality; we would selfishly use God. By gapping virtue and its reward, the spiritual life is developed. Paul says, ‘more than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ This is from Romans 5:3-5. This is a way of God saving us and if we turn and learn to be dependent upon him. I suggest this is at the very heart of the Book of Psalms. And in all of these psalms, they triumph in praise. They never lament without praise and it is always in the context that we know our God. That is the difference with Job, he complained without any praise to God. He just found fault with God and God was displeased and rebuked him and Job had to repent at the end of his pride. So we are learning that complaint is normal and even protest is normal but always to be pleasing to God with praise. Never lose confidence in him, knowing that he is doing a good work in us. This takes faith and without faith, it is impossible to please God.
B. David is Identified as ‘I’
Gunkel does argue that the ‘I’ isn’t an individual. It was thus the gravest mistake that psalm research, in general, could have made, when they completely misunderstood such lively individual poetry and universally related the ‘I’ of the complaint songs to the community. Gunkel was addressing academia of his time. The ‘I’ is always the poet with very few exceptions. ‘I’ is clearly differential from other Israelites: ‘you have removed my friends from me (88:9); I have become a stranger to my own brothers (69:9); I was young and became old. (37:25); God, when you save me, I will tell your praise to my brothers (22:23).’ The king clearly speaks in Psalm 18:32: It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights. He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. And in verse 43 & 44: You have delivered me from the attacks of the people; you have made me the head of nations, People I did not know now serve me, foreigners cower before me; as soon as they hear of me, they obey me. So the ‘I’ is the king who in this case is David.
C. Life Settings
Some of the psalms were written for the temple and some psalms were written and composed as some distance from the temple. Some psalms were composed by those who were sick as in 6:6-8: I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. Usually, they were composed of situations that were a matter of life and death. The relationship between the enemies and the one praying also concerns who will live and who will die. They strive to kill him, and he wants to gloat over their destruction. Several times the poet speaks about this mortal threat: ‘my days stretch out like a shadow, and I wither like grass. Shortness of days is my lot. The threat to life proceeds further from the words he cites from his enemies that wait on his death in order to bury him. Sometimes they were composed because of sin and sickness in their lives. Either their conscience was bothering them or they were in distress. Other distress and desires had to do with wanting to be with God and having heavy thoughts or the distress and fate of his people being a concern with him. And finally, a major situation was with their enemies.
So the first point was that it wasn’t always easy to identify the situation because they used figurative language due to the general expression and metaphors. The data providing by Gunkel is recognized as foundational by everyone. Most can easily be fitted into David’s sufferings at the hands of Saul and Absalom. The student must realize here that Gunkel doesn’t credit the Psalms as being from Daivd and thus many in academia agrees with this point. But know that this is contrary to what the Scripture actually says and is one of Gunkel’s major failures. Several of the Psalms arrive due to Saul being the enemy and Absalom. Several of the Psalms place them within the temple. Psalm 5:8: ‘But I, by your great grace, may enter your house, and bow down in worship before you before your holy temple.’ Here, it is obvious that the king is praying at the temple. In Psalm 28:2, ‘Look when I raise my hands to your holy sanctuary.’ In Psalm 5:3: ‘In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.’ The morning in the ancient Middle East was the time of judgment. They held court with the morning sun where the light was symbolic where everything would be exposed. It goes further back to the Mesopotamian era where Shamus was the sun god because he brought everything into light of day. But now David is looking to God to judge; to look at the situation and make a judgment and deliver him. In Psalm 141:2 we see that prayer was offered in the evening, the time of dough offering. ‘May my prayer be set before you like incense: may the lifting up of my hands be like the even sacrifice.’ We see even in Psalm 4, an evening prayer where he goes to sleep trusting the Lord.
But some psalms were sung at a distance from the temple. This would be Psalms 42 and 43. This was actually one psalm but was split up. There is a reframe that runs through Psalm 42 twice and also then at the end of Psalm 43. Psalm 42 is addressing the lament and Psalm 43 is the petition. It was treated as a separate prayer. Read the following:
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
So he was in the north of the country being held captive and he longs to go to Jerusalem to be in the presence of God and worship at the temple. He was in the high Jordan with waterfalls and greenery. You can easily see the lament within the first part of the psalm: Psalm 42. He is longing to be at the temple. His enemies are all around him. It says that they seek him out, lie in wait for him and gloat over his misfortune and taunt him, and laugh at him.
In regards to life and death situations, Gunkel says that these prayers do not treat everyday occurrences. Rather, they treat the terrible decision between life and death. The relationship between the enemies and the one praying; it also concerns who will live and who will die. They strive to kill him, and they want to gloat over their destruction.
In regards to these life’s settings, there are penitential psalms such as Psalm 38 of sickness and then of the brevity of life as in Psalm 39 and also Psalm 90. There are also internal distresses and desires, a desire to be with God in Psalm 61 and a psalm with all kinds of heavy thoughts and the distress and fate of his people concerns him in Psalm 94.
Within this section, there is also what is called community Laments which are listed as Psalms 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129 and 137.
III. The Enemies
A. Ways of Referring to the Enemy
There are many ways of referring to the enemies which are defined in moral terms along with the descriptions of those enemies. These include portrayals, images of being a hunted animal and zoomorphic images and their crooked ways, their secret opinions, their disdainful words against the pious. Zoomorphic relates to wild beasts such as bears and lions and enraged bulls and biting dogs. These allow the psalmists’ fear of them to be recognized in terms of the teeth of a bear. They are opposed to God. Names prescribed to enemies include words like ‘my slanderers’, ‘my opponents’, ‘those seeking my life’, ‘those suing my soul’, ‘those planning disaster against me’, ‘those seeking my disaster’, ‘those finding pleasure in my disaster’, ‘the one robbing me’, and ‘the one mocking me’. There is also an extensive use of moral terms such as impudent, arrogant, haughty, violent, crooked, strong, lying witnesses, men of violence and deceitful and shifty men. This shows the war that is going on around us even today, a war between justice and injustice; between truth and error, between virtue and vice and we are in this struggle between Christ and Satan. We are the stage and we are the actors on that stage and God chose us to be the actors on the path of faith, hope, love and virtue verses self-confidence, selfishness, the despair of this world which is in a great spiritual warfare. It makes it even clearer in the New Testament were behind these evil people, is Satan and the forces of evil. Satan is establishing a carnal kingdom but ours is a more spiritual kingdom. We are not a political nation, we are a spiritual nation. We (the people of God) are the chosen people, the holy nation as Peter tells us and we are God’s spiritual temple.
B. Gunkel and Mowinckel Sometimes Misguided Interpretation
Note that some of what Gunkel says is misguided and thus shows Gunkel lack of spirituality. Sadly, Gunkel’s theology is an accepted part of academia these days. They disregard that these Psalms are by David and was made part of the first temple era. Mowinckel says that the enemies are those who are workers of spells; they are the magicians who inflict sickness on victims. Gunkel says the enemies have primitive feelings, even psychotic and neurotic. Gunkel continues in saying that originally they were royal but were later adopted metaphorically for the common citizen. In the first temple, they originated orally for the king but what we actually have was for the second temple. This military imagery is a metaphor for the people who are living in the second temple era and they are sick. He may also suggest that they are psychologically sick. The fact is that those praying are not the great politicians, but are common private citizens. The model used for these utterances should be sought in the royal complaint songs that are imitated by the individual compliant songs. In the process, the individual complaint songs lose their literal meaning and become images and symbols. He cites Psalm 91 but there is no reference to demonic powers in this psalm. Sadly, Gunkel sees the person praying is physically sick in his viewpoint, sometimes pathologically and neurotically sick, what he calls ‘primitive feelings’. The first thing one should realize is that the one praying characteristically sees himself surrounded by a world of enemies. Again, this is Gunkel belief. This cannot be explained solely on the basis of the passionate exaggeration of the one suffering. Penitential psalms may be an instinctive egotistical feeling of sin. The conflict is due to class warfare – the pious are poor and against the rich and so religion contrasts, for the pious are convinced the rich are wicked. For Gunkel, these are not real enemies, certainly not of David.
Gunkel says that he imagines his enemies; this is paranoia; so, Gunkel thinks that the Psalmist is not psychologically well. He thinks these sufferings are not real. (It is important to keep in mind that the Psalms are by David and the King but Gunkel doesn’t believe this as with a large proportion of academia.) Yet Gunkel accepts that these are royal psalms but yet draws the conclusion that this material dates only to the second temple which is not so. Gunkel thinks that this was for the people in the second temple where they didn’t have a king, not with David and the first temple. So Gunkel starts with the presupposition that the individual is physically sick. So if the person is physically sick, then who are his enemies? This is why Gunkel says that his enemies are in his head. This is so wrong for why would you spend the time on all the detail if the righteous are crazy. Gunkel and Movwinckel are very misguided in their interpretation. How could they come to this kind of conclusion? So the pious are the poor and the wicked are the rich and we end up in class warfare. This is such bastardization of the salter; I can hardly stand what Gunkel says. It’s terrible and yet he is considered the foundation in understanding the Psalms. This is so-called scholarship. To come to this conclusion by Gunkel and Mowinckel, there has to be something wrong with their relationship with God and their hearts. That is why my first lecture was on hermeneutics and spiritual understanding; this is critical to interpreting the Psalms.
IV. The Motifs
A. Five Motifs
There are five motifs: the address, the lament, petition, confidence, and conclusion. Confidence usually comes between the lament and petition. The lament or the complaint of which there are three common sub-motifs: God appears to be absent: ‘I have been cast out from before your eyes, the Lord will not hear me, Why, YHWH do you stand in the distance? Why do you hide in times of distress and then My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Note the reason why the Psalms are so popular is that they are honest and we can identify with the emotions and feelings within them. God gives expression to the Psalm thus bringing us back to a position of faith.) Another sub-motif is that he feels that the enemy is too strong. There are too many of them. Sometimes when I look at the world, indeed, the enemy seems too strong. How can this ever be righted and changed? We identify with that but the Spirit that is in us is greater than the spirit that is against us and ultimately God will not be defeated. We will overcome. Thirdly, the ‘I’ cannot cope and is at the point of death, not being able to carry on. I need God’s intervention.
B. The Petition Motif
The third motif is the petition. This is the most significant part of the complaint song and generally, it uses words and phrases like ‘hear the prayer’, ‘look’, ‘wake up’, ‘arise’ in regards to a general prayer. The main point of the petition is asking for compassion, help and deliverance. Deliver me is a crucial point. The Hebrew word is translated deliver, save, rescue and it goes back for the name for Jesus: Joshua has two ideas to it; first, there will be a military intervention that God will intervene. The second idea always follows the first idea because it is always right. There is a fourth point of specific observable references. He is seeking justice before the judges and he introduces the petitions. He also points out several specific petitions: confessional, innocent, conversion and protection against sin and assistance for a new life. If the lost son doesn’t have a home to go to, he doesn’t have any hope. But we always have a home to go to as Christians. There is always salvation and that is what these penitential psalms are about. There are also petitions and wishes directed against the enemies of the person who prays. He deals with reproachful questions and then deals the rationale for divine intervention. They ask God to deliver them from their situation because it is just, but then the responsibility falls directly upon the king and above all upon God. If God fails to help the innocent suffer, the afflicted is put to shame. The wronged party has a responsibility to cry out. In raising their voice in suffering, God will uphold the course of justice. The point is: when you are in distress, you have a responsibility to cry out. In regards to peculiar petitions: a confessional petition is asking God for forgiveness as in: ‘forgive all my sins (Psalm 25:18) and blot out my wickedness (Psalm 51:3), do not snatch me up with my sins. Do not be angry with me forever. Do not preserve my wicked deeds (Psalm 25:11 and 51:11). If you are suffering because of sin, we come to God and petition him, confident that he will forgive us. In the New Testament, we learn that the basis for this is the atonement of Christ. So, we never stay in sin.
There are other psalms that are protests because they know that they are innocent. That is the second group. These are petitions of the innocent. In Psalm 26:2, it says to test me and another verse says to examine my kidneys and heart and he urges the divine judge to vindicate me in Psalm 7:9, 26:1 and 35:24. The one praying beseeches YHWH to recognize his innocence, and not to leave him to fall to the fate of sinners in Psalm 26:9. These are difficult because who can say that I am innocent? We all know that we are sinful. But you cannot live in ambiguity in regards to confidence; you have to know either you are forgiven or not or innocent. If you are innocent, you can pray that it’s right that I be delivered. David will pray, ‘forgive my hidden sins.’ I know my hidden sins are forgiven and if I know of a sin, I then must confess it and then I need a penitential psalm, but if I don’t have any guilt and I know I am walking with the Lord and I am trusting him to cleanse me from all my sin. The third point under peculiar and specific petitions is for a conversion and protection against sin and assistance for new life.
C. The Confidence Motif
These are expressions based on what God has done for the psalmist and we have the reasons for confidence. This is because of who God is: holy, righteous and just. His own personal experience gives him confidence that God has delivered him in the past. He is confident because he knows who he is. He knows his election and he knows he is the king. So I know who God is, I know what God has done and he knows who he is; that he has a glory bestowed upon him. I have confidence because I know who I am; I am a child of God by the promises of God. The Godless have no place with I AM.
V. The Conclusion
So we have looked at the address and the lament and the petitions and plus the confidence. At the end with absolute certainty, God answered their prayers. So we have the supplication transformed into the certainty of being heard: ‘I trust your grace, (Psalm 13:6) I am like a green olive tree in the house of YHWH. I trust his grace forever and always (Psalm 52:10). You bless the righteous, God, with salvation and protect him like a shield. You crown him with favor. (Psalm 5:13) God is my shield that protects me, the helper of the honest heart. God judges the righteous and repays the one who curses every day. You guarantee the supplication of those who fear your name.’ So they end up with absolute confidence; not all but many of them. For the explanation of this transformation; some say there was a priestly oracle (1 Sam2: Psalm 5:4) and that is what gave them the confidence. That is one explanation. I don’t think this is true as it would have been indicated in the text. I actually think it has to do with the psychology of faith that they are assured in their heart. Gunkel says that in the prayer itself, a wonderful metamorphosis is completed unconsciously and unintentionally, often quite suddenly. The feeling of uncertainty and reservation is dissolved by the happy awareness of protection and being hidden in the hand of a protective higher power. Certainty breaks through doubt and questioning. From the fear comes confidence, and from the anxiety and timidity comes the courage of rejoicing in the future. Desires and wishes become internal assets and possessions. From this experience, Luther writes to Melancthon, ‘I have prayed for you… I have felt the ‘amen’ in my heart. From this experience, Calvin formulated the rule of prayer: In the midst of misgivings, fear, and wavering, we should force ourselves to pray until we find illumination which calms us. If our hearts waver and are disturbed, we may not give up until faith proceeds victoriously from the battle. This is Gunkel but I don’t fully agree. I believe that we should pray for confidence and that we should end with confidence but not all the Psalms end this way.
If you are enjoying this lecture, would you consider making a donation so others can learn from it as well?
BiblicalTraining is a non-profit and relies on its users for support.