“Retreat from the Storm” Jean-François Millet ca. 1846. Public Domain.
Psalm 143 Contemporary English Version
1Listen, Lord, as I pray! You are faithful and honest and will answer my prayer. 2 I am your servant. Don’t try me in your court, because no one is innocent by your standards.
3 My enemies are chasing me, crushing me in the ground. I am in total darkness, like someone long dead. 4 I have given up all hope, and I feel numb all over.
5 I remember to think about the many things you did in years gone by. 6 Then I lift my hands in prayer, because my soul is a desert, thirsty for water from you.
7 Please hurry, Lord, and answer my prayer. I feel hopeless. Don’t turn away and leave me here to die. 8 Each morning let me learn more about your love because I trust you. I come to you in prayer, asking for your guidance.
9 Please rescue me from my enemies, Lord! I come to you for safety. 10 You are my God. Show me what you want me to do, and let your gentle Spirit lead me in the right path.
11 Be true to your name, Lord, and keep my life safe. Use your saving power to protect me from trouble. 12 I am your servant. Show how much you love me by destroying my enemies.
Psalm 143 is one of seven “penitential psalms.” These psalms focus on the theme of repentance, which is customarily defined as “the recognition, rejection, and abhorrence of one’s sin” (see books like González’s Essential Theological Terms, 2005). Traditionally, these psalms are used for personal study and in worship service liturgies that focus on repentance, contrition, and penance and are popular psalms during penitential times in the Church calendar like the first half of Advent and the season of Lent.
Psalm 143 is unique in this list; however because it fails to fit the traditional definition and formula of a penitential psalm. Here, the psalmist is not confessing personal misdeeds and is not asking God for forgiveness. The “sin” comes from outside in the form of enemies. Biblical scholar James L. Mays writes:
The danger and need in which the psalm is said arises because of an enemy, a mortal foe whose work is darkness and death…The prayer is not made because of some sin but because (of) the assault of the enemy and the prospect of death” (Mays Psalms 1994, p. 434).
Upon feeling this threat, the psalmist petitions God for immediate rescue, wisdom, and continued protection.
Perhaps one of the lingering impressions of the COVID-19 outbreak will be that we are more aware of our interconnectedness in this world. We, our friends, neighbors, co-workers are getting the virus despite drastic precautions, and we are working, fighting to maintain our connections to one another using both new and old technologies.
The outbreak could also uncover the differences and inequalities in this world. How we weather the outbreak depends largely on where we were born, what class, caste, or socio-economic reality we were raised in and what life circumstances got us to today. There is something adventurous about this new reality for some, and something overwhelmingly scary for others.
Whatever our situation, a prayer like Psalm 143 is useful. It reminds people of faith to call upon God in times of trouble and seek help:
As the enemy crashes around us, O God, Rescue us quickly. As we worry about the future, Give us the wisdom to protect one another And guide our doctors, nurses, and public leaders. Be true to your name, O God, and keep us safe. Today and forever. Amen.