Psalm 69: The Hymn Book of Jesus

Save me, O God,
    for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
    where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
    the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
    looking for my God.
Those who hate me without reason
    outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
    those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
    what I did not steal.

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Psalm 69

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, ‘if we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms…we must not ask first what they have to do with us but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.’ These great song poems were the prayer book of Israel and so the hymn book of Jesus.  

We might easily understand how Psalm 69 featured in the life of Jesus. As he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane wanting the cup of suffering to pass, he would have felt like a man who was drowning or slipping under the quicksand (vv. 1–5). There is a piece of graffiti in Rome which probably dates from the second century. It is a crude jibe at Christianity. It has a picture of a donkey being crucified and the caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his God’. Jesus’ death was shameful to most onlookers (Hebrews 12:2) – the implication of the graffiti being something like, ‘You must be an ass if you worship such a God.’ The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion vividly portray Jesus scorned and shamed – as was this Psalmist (vv. 6, 7).

Verse 8 is a reminder that for Jesus to do his Father’s will was costly. The Gospel accounts remind us that there were times of tension between Jesus and his human family (Mark 13:21). There were times when people misunderstood and mocked him (vv. 9–12). The disciples saw Jesus embodying verse 9 when he cleared out the moneychangers from the Temple (John 2:17).

Verse 5 might be troublesome: surely Jesus was the sinless one, the righteous one, the one who always did his Father’s will? David speaks in the Psalm of his personal guilt but the prayer is on Jesus lips because he identifies so completely with alienated, sinful humanity and takes the guilt of all humanity upon himself. Paul wrote, ‘God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In the midst of difficulty, Jesus turned to his Father in prayer and in God’s great love (v. 13) experienced hope and the promise of redemption (v. 18).

Verses 22–28 are understandable on the lips of David. They are a cry for retribution, that those who have done harm get their just desserts – particularly as they have been happy to kick a man when he is down (v. 26).  Before we dismiss the Psalmist’s feelings there is a wisdom in expressing our anger to God rather than dishing it out to our enemies or denying our hurt and turning the rage against our self. The Christ who read and prayed this Psalm was the one who said ‘pray for those who persecute you’, ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘love your enemies’, the one who didn’t come back to hunt down his enemies and exact retribution. We will have enemies. What they say and do can leave us feeling raw, and it is right to long for justice. However, the desire for retribution often just fuels the cycle of violence. In Jesus, though, something genuinely new has come into the world and made the world a better place.

The final verses pass from individual confidence that God will answer prayer to a great cosmic call for all creation to join in praising the God who rescues and restores, a thanksgiving that comes from the heart and not just out of unthinking routine (v. 31). The Psalm which begins in despair ends in doxology. Goldingay comments, ‘Nothing has changed in the victim’s experience, yet pouring oneself out to God and knowing that God has listened means that everything has changed.’