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Psalm 143: Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies

This is the prayer of sincerity and humility; it is also the prayer of one who has learned from long, painful experience that doing one’s own will generally leads to disaster.

Detail from the beginning of Psalm 143 [Psalm 142 Septuagint] in the "Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry" (1412-16). [Wikipedia]

Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms. A complete list of the essays is at the bottom of this essay.

1 Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my supplications!
In thy faithfulness answer me, in thy righteousness!

2 Enter not into judgment with thy servant;
for no man living is righteous before thee.

3 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.

4 Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.

5 I remember the days of old,
I meditate on all that thou hast done;
I muse on what thy hands have wrought.

6 I stretch out my hands to thee;
my soul thirsts for thee like a parched land.

7 Make haste to answer me, O Lord!
My spirit fails!
Hide not thy face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the Pit.

8 Let me hear in the morning of thy steadfast love,
for in thee I put my trust.
Teach me the way I should go,
for to thee I lift up my soul.

9 Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies!
I have fled to thee for refuge!

10 Teach me to do thy will,
for thou art my God!
Let thy good spirit lead me
on a level path!

11 For thy name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life!
In thy righteousness bring me out of trouble!

12 And in thy steadfast love cut off my enemies,
and destroy all my adversaries,
for I am thy servant. (Psalm 143)

We have reached the end of our consideration of the Seven Penitential Psalms. Many of the themes we have seen already are reprised here in Psalm 143.

The very first verse is an acknowledgment of and appeal to God’s fidelity. The important point to appreciate is what the psalmist is saying – quite correctly – is that God is faithful, even when we are not! St. Paul expresses this as a truism: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). Thank God that God is not like us – conniving and fickle. In a very clever way, the sacred author is, humanly speaking, putting God “on the defensive,” as it were “reminding” Him of who He is and, therefore, how He must act.

Of course, God doesn’t need any “reminding”; He is only too eager to be true to Himself – all He needs is the invitation from us. “Behold! I stand at the door and knock,” says the Jesus of the Book of Revelation (3:20). That verse was the inspiration for the justifiably famous painting by William Holman Hunt which depicts Christ as the Light of the World, knocking on a door without an exterior knob. Why so? Because Christ will never force His way into our hearts and lives; we must admit Him of our own free accord. Mother Teresa of Calcutta would speak of our need to “give God permission.”

The exhilarating (and concerning) truth is that Almighty God so respects our human freedom that He allows us to choose our own defective brands of freedom, to our own detriment. In all my years of high school work, I never ceased to be amazed at how those students consistently asked why God gave us freedom since that allowed us to sin and thus be punished – and this, from a generation that just as consistently (or inconsistently) demanded total freedom. What they resisted was the logic served up by St. John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” And one of those duties is to take responsibility for one’s decisions and actions.

In the following verse, the psalmist wisely begs God not to relate to us in terms of justice; for, if that were the case, we would all be in trouble, says he! No, when we plead our case before the Divine Tribunal, we ask not for justice but for mercy (as we heard from Shakespeare’s Portia). Truth be told, it is only for us mortals that justice and mercy are polar opposites; in God, they are but two sides of the same coin. Psalm 85 sings of the total harmony of these: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (10-11).

The psalmist shows himself to be distinctly “un-modern” in his assertion that “no man living is righteous before thee.” Similarly, in the Book of Proverbs, we are taught that even a just man sins seven times a day (24:16) – Hebraic hyperbole to underscore the universality of sin, which is not hyperbole. How often does the evening news report that someone has just committed a most heinous crime, only to be told by his attorney or friend, “That’s not who he really is. He’s really a good person.” Such a declaration would be laughable (or worse) to a person trained in the School of the Bible.

As the sacred author remembers God’s providential care for him personally and for Israel collectively, he is shamed into repentance, essentially concluding: “If God has been so good, how could I fail to respond to love with love – the love of obedience?” In fact, he begs for the grace to be instructed in God’s ways; this time around, he will take that instruction seriously by not only hearing but acting. It is interesting that our English word “obey” comes from the Latin oboedire which, in turn, comes from ob and audire, meaning “to listen intently.” Listening intently implies an active response to what has been heard.

The psalmist’s contrition, however, is not what we traditionally call “perfect contrition” as he admits that he doesn’t want to “go down to the Pit,” that is, Hell. Imperfect contrition is not bad, after all, it qualifies us for absolution and can (hopefully) be the springboard for perfect contrition. Hence, we pray: “I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” but continue, “but most of all, because they [my sins] offend Thee, my God, who art all-good and deserving of all my love.” We should never make the perfect the enemy of the good. In the same way, our motivations may not always be the purest (whose are, really?): A mother who rouses herself from bed to feed a crying infant in the middle of the night may well be doing that good act to stop the crying, rather than out of the deepest love for her child. Or, someone may observe the Sunday Mass obligation out of fear of committing a mortal sin, rather than out of a holy sense of devotion. Both are performing good acts, the performance of which can lead to higher and holier motives.

Speaking of Heaven and Hell – and “the Pit” – it is worth noting here that there was no clear, univocal understanding of the afterlife in biblical Judaism (nor is there today). For some Jews, life on earth was all there was; for those people, their obedience of the divine law was truly laudable since they obeyed without consideration of final reward or punishment. Others held to a notion of some kind of shadowy existence for the soul, while yet others (as time went on) believed in a bodily resurrection, which was the doctrine adhered to by the Pharisees in the time of Christ and, of course, was the teaching of Our Lord Himself.

Next, the psalmist prays to be led by God’s “good spirit,” so as to trod a “level path.” The Church has always taught that certain passages of the Old Testament take on a deeper meaning and fulfillment in the New Covenant, a sensus plenior (fuller sense). We have one such example here: Who is God’s “good spirit” but the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity would be revealed only with the coming of Christ, but in this verse we have a glimpse or foreshadowing of that teaching. The “level path” is the road to virtue unencumbered by obstacles or distractions, which we term “the near occasions of sin.”

That same verse implores God: “Teach me to do thy will.” This is the prayer of sincerity and humility; it is also the prayer of one who has learned from long, painful experience that doing one’s own will generally leads to disaster. Dante reminds us, “In His will is our peace.” Just what does that mean? Two things: first, that our God wills, wants, desires us to live in peace; second, that the only lasting way to live in peace is to conform our wills to His. It takes some of us longer to learn those lessons than others. Lent is the “acceptable time” to align ourselves with the God of peace.

In a rather clever, even cute way, the psalmist tries to bring God into his court as he urges God to do right by him “for thy name’s sake.” In other words, “come to my aid, Lord, because I don’t want you to look bad in the sight of your enemies, who might use me against you!” This kind of bargaining with God is not unknown in salvation history; we think immediately of Abraham doing just that on behalf of Sodom (see Gen 18).

This approach suggests a type of “holy familiarity” between the psalmist and his God – not God as “Buddy” (they are not equals) but very much like God as “Father.” Jesus will raise that consciousness to an even higher degree when He teaches His disciples to address God as “Abba.”

Finally, the psalmist still has some miles to travel to arrive at a full Gospel ethic as he asks that God “destroy” his adversaries. Now, let’s take a closer look at this before we jump to too many conclusions. There are a number of psalms that call down divine vindication on one’s enemies; these are grouped together under the heading of “cursing psalms.” While retained in the canon of the Bible, some liturgists made bold to excise the “offending” verses from either the Liturgy of the Hours or the lectionary for Mass.

While admitting that some of the sentiments expressed in those psalms are problematic from a Christian perspective, one must ask who we are to censor the Word of God. Better yet, is it possible to interpret those psalms in a fashion that leaves them intact, but raises them to a different level. I believe there is. First, we can, and must, say that all too frequently we do indeed call down fire from Heaven on our opponents, which is a very human instinct. We can acknowledge that and thank God that our higher instincts do not allow us to remain too long in that disposition. Second, we can pray such lines while voicing a prayer of gratitude to our heavenly Father for the gift of His Son, who taught us to love even our enemies. Confessors and psychiatrists both tell us that the most frequent cause of personal disorders is precisely an unwillingness or inability to forgive. Holding resentments in rarely harms one’s enemies (and it’s not wrong to have enemies; Jesus just told us to pray them into friends!), but it does harm the person who won’t let go of past injuries as it gives the enemy control over one’s present and future alike.

The final line of the psalm needs to be etched in our hearts and minds: “I am thy servant.” We know that the greatest Christian ever made that declaration (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord!), which enabled the greatest event in history to occur (the Incarnation). That said, it seems that Our Lord is not content with counting us among His servants (although that is the starting point), for He told His apostles before He died: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15).

Adopting the spirituality of the Seven Penitential Psalms can move us from being the enemies of God, to His servants, and eventually to His friends. On this Good Friday, we have one more opportunity to engage in that process; I would suggest praying the following Litany of Penance that comes from the pen of the great Cardinal Newman.

Litany of Penance

LORD, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God the Father of Heaven, Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, ”
God the Holy Ghost,
Holy Trinity, one God,
Incarnate Lord,
Lover of souls,
Saviour of sinners,
Who didst come to seek those that were lost,
Who didst fast for them forty days and nights,
By Thy tenderness towards Adam when he fell,
By Thy faithfulness to Noe in the ark,
By Thy remembrance of Lot in the midst of sinners,
By Thy mercy on the Israelites in the desert,
By Thy forgiveness of David after his confession,
By Thy patience with wicked Achab on his humiliation,
By Thy restoration of the penitent Manasses,
By Thy long suffering towards the Ninevites,
when they went in sackcloth and ashes,
By Thy blessing on the Maccabees,
who fasted before the battle,
By Thy choice of John to go before Thee as the preacher of penance,
By Thy testimony to the Publican,
who hung his head and smote his breast,
By Thy welcome given to the returning Prodigal,
By Thy gentleness with the woman of Samaria,
By Thy condescension towards Zacchæus,
persuading him to restitution,
By Thy pity upon the woman taken in adultery,
By Thy love of Magdalen, who loved much,
By Thy converting look, at which Peter wept,
By Thy gracious words to the thief upon the cross,
We sinners, Beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may judge ourselves,
and so escape Thy judgment. ”
That we may bring forth worthy fruits of penance,
That sin may not reign in our mortal bodies,
That we may work out our salvation with fear and trembling,
Son of God,
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
O Lord, hear our prayer.
And let our cry come unto Thee.
Let us pray
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to Thy faithful, pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their offences, and also serve Thee with a quiet mind, through Christ our Lord.—Amen.

Essays on the Seven Penitential Psalms:

The Seven Penitential Psalms in time of pandemic/Psalm 6 (April 4, 2020)
Psalm 32: The Joy of Forgiveness (April 5, 2020)
Psalm 38: A Penitent Sufferer’s Plea for Healing (April 6, 2020)
Psalm 51: Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon (April 7, 2020)
• Psalm 102: Prayer to the Eternal King for Help (April 8, 2020)
Psalm 130: Waiting for Divine Redemption (April 9, 2020)
Psalm 143: Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies (April 9, 2020)

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 280 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

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