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Psalm 69:19-21 – Vinegar for My Thirst

Summary

In the midst of a long individual lament, the pray-er complains of being tormented by enemies who give poison and vinegar instead of food and water.

Analysis

These verses provide the background for the scene at the crucifixion when Jesus thirsts and is given sour wine or vinegar (John 19:28-30). At this point in the psalm the pray-er calls for God's retribution upon those who have treated him so badly (vv. 22-29)--an outburst typical of the lament psalms, though this one is particularly harsh. According to the Gospels, however, Jesus asks God to forgive his tormenters (Luke 23:34). The contrast is real, though it should not be read to mark a difference between a harsh Old Testament religion and a merciful New Testament one. The anger at the enemies in the psalms is understandable human anger, and the psalmists know well that God is characterized by steadfast love (Psalm 145:8-9). Still, in calling for forgiveness, Jesus goes beyond the normal human response to ill treatment and exemplifies his own command to "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:43-48).

Without explaining away the difficult passages in the Psalter regarding the enemies (see Theological Themes), there are several ways to try to understand them better: (1) The psalms are honest, sometimes raw in their descriptions. The pray-ers lay before God their terrors and fears, their affections and their hatreds. Their language is real, descriptive of their lives and not meant to be prescriptive for anyone else. (2) The hatred of the enemies is turned over to God. The pray-ers do not execute judgment themselves, but ask God to intervene. God can, of course, do whatever God chooses with such a prayer, perhaps offering the retribution requested, if justified; perhaps convincing the pray-er of a better way. (3) The people of God in the Old Testament did not have a full sense of resurrection or life after death. Thus, they could not wait for another day to see God's righteous judgment. If genuine oppression is occurring, justice needs to happen now. The passion of the prayers reflects the fact that, for the psalmists, the very justice of God is at stake. (4) The prayers often seem to be those of the marginalized and falsely accused (69:4). These are not the rich seeking revenge for petty offenses, but the poor who have no other recourse. In this case, the "enemies" would be the same wicked oppressors condemned by the prophets. (5) For present use, as we understand that we are often our own worst enemies, the prayers can be read as requests for God to act against those things within us that threaten to separate us from God. This would probably not have been the original sense of the poems, but similar spiritualized readings of the biblical texts began already within the Old Testament period. (6) We read these psalms in Christ as the prayers of Christ. Only Christ can perfectly pray against the enemies that threaten God's kingdom and God's people. As sinners, humans cannot and must not ultimately make such judgments, but in and through Christ these can also be the prayers of the Christian community.


19 You know the insults I receive,
   and my shame and dishonour;
   my foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart,
   so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
   and for comforters, but I found none.
21 They gave me poison for food,
   and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

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10 February 2011

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