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The problem of perspective

Living behind my eyes and ears, I am stuck with seeing and hearing the world from my limited perspective. Sometimes, I’m able to add my perspective and help others see things more clearly. But too often, my skewed and limited perspective makes more problems than solutions.

I can’t count how many times I’ve misunderstood people because I didn’t hear them correctly. I’ve gladly forgotten the mistakes I’ve made as a volleyball referee who didn’t see clearly what was happening on the court. I lacked the necessary perspective.

Psalm 52 struggles with a problem of perspective. The superscription gives us the setting behind it: “When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: ‘David has gone to the house of Ahimelek.'”

Think about this for a bit. Both David and Doeg were important officials in the government of Saul, king of Israel. David was suspected of wanting to take over the kingdom for himself and Doeg gave simple but necessary information to the king about this possible insurgent.

That suspicion was true, by the way. From the day he was anointed, David had his eye on the throne. The reason he fought Goliath was to earn the prize of marriage to the king’s daughter (1 Sam. 17:25-27)  — a means of entering the king’s household and making his way onto the throne. A simple rereading of 1 Samuel with David’s kingly ambitions in view is enlightening. Robert Alter does a masterly job of this in his book/commentary The David Story.

From Saul’s perspective, Doeg was a faithful, loyal servant and David a deceitful “mighty hero.” In fact, this psalm could easily be turned around completely. Try reading it as Doeg’s psalm about tricksy David. Amazingly, it works! Doeg never plotted to gain the throne and certainly never raised an army of good-for-nothings, using it to effectively take over a part of the kingdom while the established king still ruled.

Throughout the Psalms, we encounter problematic perspectives. Psalm 137 ends with a willingness to bless baby killers. Psalm 88 is an accusation against God, blaming him for taking away all friends so that darkness is the only remaining friend. Psalm 109 is brutal with its litany of evil poured out on its enemy, wishing that the enemy will be falsely accused in court, lose the legal battle, die, and leave his children as homeless orphans.

These are problems.

Some have tried to come up with clever, pious readings which make these psalms sound palatable. But they just don’t work. In each of these psalms and others like them, the writer is just plain in the wrong.

We should have no trouble with this, since the Scriptures declare that none of us is righteous and that all have sinned, falling short of God’s glory. We have the adultery of David, the murder of Moses, and the denial of Peter among the many egregious transgressions of our biblical “heroes.” And yet, we balk at reading a psalm as if it were written from a wrong perspective?

The Psalms are our companions in praying. As such, they teach us to pray in any and every situation we find ourselves in. And that includes times when we pray out of wrong perspectives.

Everyone one of us has been so completely wrong at times, we simply couldn’t see things as they really were. And yet, we still needed to pray. And so, our prayers came out all cockeyed and backward. But still we pray. We can’t wait to correct our perspectives first.

Pray first. Correct perspectives later.

When David writes the following words in his poem, none of them actually describes Doeg as we see him in 1 Samuel. Every bit of this is David’s projection onto Doeg. It all arises from  deep-seated bitterness, not pious faith. And that’s OK.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
    Why do you boast all day long,
    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
You who practice deceit,
    your tongue plots destruction;
    it is like a sharpened razor.
You love evil rather than good,
    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
You love every harmful word,
    you deceitful tongue! (Ps. 52:1-4)

David even engages in a sulky imagination, dreaming of Doeg’s downfall and how people will mock him. It’s just plain ugly. But it’s also truly human. I know I’ve been here before myself.

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:
    He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living.
The righteous will see and fear;
    they will laugh at you, saying,
“Here now is the man
    who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his great wealth
    and grew strong by destroying others!” (Ps. 52:5-7)

And to make things worse, it’s contrasted by a bit of self-righteousness. So, we end up with a “You suck! But I’m great!” pity party.

It’s childish. And it’s so like me. The mirror this puts in front of me is sadly revealing.

But I am like an olive tree
    flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
    for ever and ever. (Ps. 52:8)

And then finally, after eight verses of whining, we get to the one verse of prayer in the entire psalm. Yep, this nine-verse psalm has only one verse of prayer in it. It’s been seven verses of angry poetry about Doeg and one verse of self-righteous poetry about David. And then the one-verse prayer.

Pre-prayer is just as important as the praying itself. All of the thinking and fuming and reading and talking that goes on but is not directed toward God finds its way into our praying. And so we pay attention to our rants, our pacing back and forth, our sleepless nights, our anxious text messages. And we bring them all and lay them before God as we finally turn our voice to him.

And what we discover in this mess of a psalm is that David has finally found the voice of faith he’s been struggling to find. And as he prays, he articulates a necessary hope in an insecure time.

Though unfair in his characterization, David has used Doeg as a reminder of what not to do, of how not to live, of where not to look for hope. And having considered these negations, David steps into the real thing.

For what you have done I will always praise you
    in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
    for your name is good. (Ps. 52:9)

Even though the name Yahweh isn’t used in Psalm 52, David references it. The name personalizes the relationship, grounding the hope and grounding David at the same time.

It’s such a simple prayer after such an intense wave of emotion. And maybe it wasn’t enough to balance out David’s perspective. But even so, David is no longer obsessed with Doeg, for he is no longer looking at his enemy. He’s looking at God.

And even if looking toward doesn’t change my perspective, it does change me.