Who is This Even For?
If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. – Psalm 17:3 (NRSV)
Who is this psalm even for? Who could pray it with a straight face?
A mostly clean conscience, fine. But blameless? Free not only of personal sin but participation in any sort of collective or social sin, too?
Is there anyone who seriously believes this about themselves? If there is, are we sure we should be encouraging them?
The psalms are words from humans to God, not the other way around. All the modes of human emotion and expression, worthy or not, are given voice. Maybe that’s how these lines made it in there?
Still, this sort of blamelessness is so obviously an impossibility that one suspects the psalmist must have been writing ironically. Or maybe in the easy-to-lampoon character of the church member who’s forever claiming they don’t need prayers of confession in the worship service.
On the other hand, while I’d never claim out loud to be free of wickedness, I sure have found myself acting that way from time to time. Looking like butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth, with a log in my eye all the while. Maybe the psalmist wrote those words for us to say – not so that we would believe them, and not to make fun of those who do – but so that in saying them, we’ll find them sticking in our mouths, find ourselves choking on their untruth. So that maybe then we’ll turn to some other psalm, one of the ones that say, “Help me,” “Save me,” “I need you,” “Forgive me.”
OK, OK, I get it. It was written for me. Thank you. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.