Monday, July 9, 2018

Have Mercy



Be merciful unto me, O God, for man would swallow me up: he fighteth continually and vexeth me.
Psalm 56:1

It's often frustrating how wordplay in one language is impossible to render in another. The opening of Psalm 56 is a great example. 

On close inspection, this psalm is somewhat confusing. Or at least its first verse is. The problem lies with the translation of the Hebrew word שְׁאָפַנִי, which some modern translations render as tramples me, but which the Geneva Bible translated conditionally as would swallow me up (the KJV mimicked the Geneva Bible in this). Geneva more literally translates the Hebrew, so I am using it this morning. One of the odder pieces of evidence that the old translation was the correct one lies in the word לֹחֵם, which the NRSV appears to omit completely, using only one verb—oppress—in the final clause, when the Hebrew uses two. לֹחֵם refers to fighting, but its more literal meaning is closer to devouring, since לחם without the points (vowels) would in most instances be translated as bread. Calvin (probably accidentally) reïnforces all this angrily gluttonous imagery by calling it "insatiable rage."

Normally, it would be best to take Psalm 56:1 at face value in whatever translation I'm reading, since the meaning is pretty straightforward: Somebody's asking for God's help because they're in immediate danger. But the language used is so colorful that I couldn't help but think how the plea for mercy and all the devouring going on also sounded like the language of love.

My first exposure to Robert Palmer was way back in 1976 when I saw him on a TV show called The Midnight Special. I liked the song he sang (Man Smart, Woman Smarter) so much that I bought the album (Some People Can Do What They Like). And on the album was a song called Have Mercy. I don't know what happened to that album, but I thought of this song when I read this morning's psalm. In both the psalm and the song, there's a plea for help and the need is immediate. If the plea is not answered, things will go south, and there'll be no turning back.

I suppose it may seem trite to compare the situations, but for most people on most days, I think the analogy is the best we can hope for. Both are situations where we have lost control and we depend upon another to have mercy, to put an end to our agony. Whether it's a plea to God for mercy because we're in trouble, or a plea to another for mercy because we're in love, we have to go outside ourselves for salvation or redemption. And that's the point here. 

I need you God. I cannot do for myself what I know you can accomplish on my behalf. Have mercy on me, save me, make me whole, in Jesus' Name. Amen.