Psalm 3 - You, O Lord, are a shield

A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.
1) O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
2) many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.”

3) But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
4) I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.

5) I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
6) I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.

7) Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
8) Deliverance belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people!
Psalm 3 (NRSV)

A strong shield is a really good thing to have when you're being attacked, especially by many foes. The threat is sharpened when people preach dis-courage: God will not help you. Whether courage or in-your-face audacity, the declaration still goes out that hope is in the Lord, who is mightier than any number of enemies. "Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!"

As it happens, I was reading this psalm in the dentist's office, and it is really hard to get past this prayer that God will break the teeth of the wicked. One single slightly broken tooth can be plenty painful.

Is this metaphorical speech? That God "de-fangs" the enemy, removes their power to harm? I think it is, and I am also pretty sure it is meant literally. Terrible things happen in battle, and it is hard to take serious threats any way other than personally. It is a very human thing to wish for vengeance upon those who seek to harm or destroy us.

In the Ancient Near East of 3000 years ago, and for most of human history, a mouth full of broken teeth meant more than intense pain. It meant a slow and painful death, from infection and lack of nutrition.

It is likely this brutal detail which keeps this psalm from being part of the 3-year lectionary cycle for church readings.

For as long as people have been set in enmity and fighting, there have been prayers to every god to support one side over the other. And however forgiveness and reconciliation is at the core of God's nature, we know that the Biblical God takes sides.

It is an open question about what God does with a prayer like this. What is certain, though, is that strong desires for deliverance, and for retribution, are best brought to the Lord. This psalm recognizes that ultimately, how God answers is up to God. Deliverance is the Lord's.

And the closing thought: "May your blessing be on your people!" also laves entirely in God's hands the decisions about what blessings and upon who to bestow them.

It may be that our best prayer is to take all we have and give it over to God, trusting in God to answer according to God's own divine way.

Wandsworth Shield, Iron Age shield boss in La Tène style, British Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0), public domain.
Skull with missing teeth. (CC0 1.0), public domain.


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