Psalm 143: Knowing when to Stop Talking

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We all know the type. They make a good point in a presentation but instead of stopping, they keep talking, leaving us behind in the wake of their self-congratulations and taking away from what they had earlier said. Or those who apologize for something they did wrong, but instead of ending with the apology, they have to add, but . . . to justify what they did wrong. “But if you weren’t so difficult, this never would have happened.” “But if you would have helped . . . or done this . . .” and so it goes on. They just have to add one last jab.

And then, of course, there are those of us with chronic foot in mouth disease. We just don’t know when to leave well enough alone and keep our mouths shut.

If one drink is good, then two must be better. If one scoop of double dark chocolate ice cream is good, then two must be great, we think. Knowing when to stop, what is enough, is a great gift, often lacking in many of us. Such appears to be the case for the writer of Psalm 143.

Psalm 143 is the last of the seven penitential psalms, so labeled because of the words of repentance found in them. The writer has a strong sense of his own sin and human frailty. He is pursued by enemies, “For the enemy has pursued me; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead, therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.” (3-4). In his repentance, he appears ready to admit that those enemies may very well be instruments of God’s correction. “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no man living is righteous before you.” (2)

He doesn’t insist on his own innocence, but puts his trust in God. “I remember the days of old, I meditate on all that you have done; I muse on what your hands have wrought, I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” (5-6) He seeks God’s guidance, “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I put my trust, teach me the way I should go, for to you I left up my soul.” (8) “Teach me to do your will for you art my God! Let your good spirit lead me on a level path!” (10)

Despite his sins, he is confident that he has the right to call upon God, “for I am your servant.” (12b) In his confidence he asks God to hurry up, “Make hast to answer me, O Lord.” (7a) and asks God to save him, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring me out of trouble!” (11)

In all of this, the writer is humble and faith-filled. If only he had left it at that. But, as often happens in the Psalms, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to take a jab at his enemies. “And in your steadfast love cut off my enemies and destroy all my adversaries,” (12a) he adds at the end of the psalm, a stark contrast to the rest of the psalm.

What we may not be able to recognize in ourselves, we can see so blatantly at the end of this psalm as we are jarred by the final verse.

Even the best of us give in to our darker sides at times. We give in to our desire for vengeance or to be shown right or to have the last word, rather than humbly pray to our God. If even the writers of the Psalms are slaves to their humanity, how can we expect to do better? By learning from their mistakes, learning when we’ve said enough, learning to keep silent and allow God to be our judge and our advocate.

Do you have a tendency to have to have the last word in a fight? Do you allow unkind words to slip out despite your best efforts? Perhaps we can learn from this psalm to stop while we are ahead.

 

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