Psalm 17: Keep Me as the Apple of the Eye

March 4, 2012             Psalm 17:  Keep Me as the Apple of the Eye – Believe in the Promise
Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16                  Psalm 17          Romans 4:13-25          Mark 8:31-38
“Keep me as the apple of the eye,” our psalm asks today.  It is a beautiful prayer for protection, calling upon God to save the writer from evil, slanderous men who had brought charges against him in court.  The writer had taken refuge in the temple and called upon God to protect him.  It is an individual lament.  The writer makes an appeal, states his case, makes his request then ends on a note of trust and confidence in God.
The writer is a righteous man, falsely accused.  First he appeals to God, vs. 1-2.  He insists on his righteousness, saying that if you visited him in the middle of the night, when all is silent and free from distraction, when the soul is most open to scrutiny, you would find nothing to charge him with- he is clearly innocent, vs. 3.  He goes through a list of possible transgressions: he never achieved material gain by breaking a divine rule (4); has never been violent (4); and has kept to the straight and narrow without budging (5).  He is a righteous man and was not afraid to say so.  His mouth has not transgressed God by false witness, oath or worship.  He has control of his tongue, quite an accomplishment as we have seen from our study of Psalm 12 and the difficulty of controlling the human tongue.  He has control of his mind, hence of his tongue.  He truly is a worthy man, by his own account.  May sound like boasting, yet in the face of being charged falsely, nothing wrong with defending yourself.
After his statement of his innocence, he renews his appeal with confidence to God, vs 6-7.
Vs. 8-9 put his request in poetic terms – keep me as the apple of the eye.  The apple of the eye in common parlance has come to mean that which is most precious to us.  For early Hebrews it referred to the pupil, the most vulnerable part of the eye, which needed protection.  Apple of the eye was the pupil of the eye, in Hebrew, “the little man of the eye.” It was the reflection of one looking into the eye, in other words the psalmist is asking God to keep me as a reflection of you, as almost a part of yourself. (The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, p. 89)  Keep me so close to you that I am a reflection of you; protect me as you would that which is most precious to you.  He goes on to say, hide me in the shadow of thy wings, protect me under your wings the way a mother bird protects her young, for his enemies are surround him.
As to the nature of these enemies, KJV offers a poetic image, “they are enclosed in their own fat,” as opposed to RSV, “they close their heart to pity.”  In this day and age where obesity has become an epidemic, this is a timely image.  It brings to mind the image of Jabba the Hutt from the Star Wars movies, so fat that he can hardly move, he waddles, devouring all who get in his way, to his own detriment as he is destroying himself with gluttony.  They are a people unreceptive to any positive influences because they are encased in their own fat, in their own greed and selfishness.  Fat is their way of life, keeping them from feeling any concern or pity for anyone else.  Like a lion, they are eager to tear, they lurk in ambush, both openly attacking and waiting in hiding.
His prayer for vengeance takes an interesting turn.  He prays for a violent overthrow.  Using a traditional blessing formula, he twists it into a curse.  He prays that these men whose portion in life is of the world, whose bellies are full of that which they have chosen, may have their fill until they burst, “May their belly be filled with what thou has stored up for them.”  Let the portion they have chosen be their portion – to their own detriment, is one interpretation.  Or let their belly be filled with what you have in store for them, assuming that is punishment, is another interpretation.  It isn’t enough that they be punished, but future generations, their children and their children’s children as well, for they are sharing the benefit of their ill-gotten gain and so are to share the punishment.  NAB version, “their children are satisfied too, for they share what is left with their young.” (14b)
After venting, the psalmist ends with a beautiful passage of serenity and trust – “As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form.” (15)
The poet’s conscience is at rest, he trusts completely in God’s righteousness, gives it all over to God.
This extreme is almost comical, to go from harsh words of vengeance to complete trust – yet they are truthful and so human.  After asking God for what he wants, venting his anger against his enemy, he releases it all into God’s hands, trusting God to do what God will do, and so does not sin.  Sometimes we need to vent our anger before we can release it.  The writer ends with confident belief in God.. 
Is God worthy of this trust?  Does God keep God’s promises?
In our first reading from Genesis, God makes a promise to Abram, changing his name to Abraham, as well as changing his wife Sarai’s name to Sarah.  The promise was that he would be the father of a great nation, that Sarah, who was considered barren and past the age for baring children would have a son.  The promise was so incredible that Abraham laughed, as did Sarah when she heard about it, but a year later she gave birth to a son.  Abraham believed.  And then when asked to sacrifice this son, Abraham still had faith, faith that was willing to do what he believed God was asking even when in flew in the face of what God had promised.  God’s promise remained true.  Through Isaac, Abraham was the father of a great nation, the Hebrew nation.  As Paul tells us in Romans, “he believed, hoping against hope,” and so is a model of belief.  Abraham was justified in his belief, justified by faith.
In our gospel, Peter one minute shines, recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, the next shows how little he truly understands when he rebukes Jesus for predicting his suffering.  Peter shows himself to be very human.  He thinks in human terms, not in God’s terms.  He thinks the Messiah is meant to be a worldly leader not a suffering servant.  The middle portion of Mark’s gospel, 8:22 – 10:52, begins and ends with the healing of blind men.  In this they go from blindness, to half sight, to seeing clearly.  “After they have thrown off the mantle of ignorance through a full encounter with the Lord, they are able to follow him in the way which is his.” (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, p. 33)  Peter is still in half sight.  He doesn’t understand.  He wants to follow Jesus, but he wants it to be under his terms, how he thinks it should be.  He doesn’t understand the cross.  Jesus’ rebuke doesn’t cast him out, just tells him to get in line.  Don’t try to lead, get behind me where you belong.  As disciples we are called to follow God, even when we don’t understand.  Abraham followed God, even when he didn’t understand. 
We all have our own ideas about who God is and how we expect God to be in this world, ideas that are colored by our experience and limited sight.  The writer of our psalm saw himself as a righteous man.  As a righteous man he asks God for vengeance, his form of vengeance.  Like Peter he was mistaken in his thinking.  Just because we don’t understand God’s ways, doesn’t make God’s promises any less real.  Abraham believed in God’s promise even when he thought he was to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Peter needed to learn to believe in God’s promise even when it didn’t come in the form that he expected, even when it meant suffering and the cross before getting to the resurrection.  God is always true to his promises; they just don’t always take the form that we expect.  This doesn’t make them any less true.
And what does God promise?  He doesn’t promise that life will be easy, in fact the reverse.  He does promise that someday we shall be happy with him in heaven where we shall see him face to face.
The psalmist writes, “keep me as the apple of the eye.”  We are God’s precious ones, the pupil that reflects the soul, wherein we see the inner person.  Keep us as a reflection of you, O God.   Keep us so close to you that we are reflections of you; protect us as you would that which is most precious to you.  Hide us in the shadow of your wings as a mother bird protects her young.  Truly we are precious in God’s sight.  This doesn’t mean we will not have challenges in this world.  This doesn’t mean that God will spare us our own particular cross.  It does mean that God’s promises are true, to be believed.  If we put our trust in our God then we can say with the psalmist, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.”  We, too, shall see God face to face. 

Robertson, copyright March 2012

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