Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The "Poor" in the Psalms

Excursus:  The "Poor" in the Psalms and Its Relation to Proverbs

I tend to view the poor in the Proverbs in a similar way to how the poor are viewed in the book of Psalms.  This is relevant for Proverbs, because Solomon is the chief composer of Proverbs just as his father David is the chief author of the Psalms.  Since it is hard to imagine that Solomon, who appears to have been familiar with the wisdom writings of the nations around him (1 Kings 4:29-31), would have been unfamiliar with his own father's psalms.  Thus, it seems hard to imagine that Solomon was not influenced by the Psalms.  It seems reasonable to expect, then, a similar view of the poor and their identification in both the Psalms and Proverbs. 

In this excursus (see also the excursus on Jesus' Use of the Word Poor), I will take a brief look at the 25 times the word poor is used in Psalms.  I will argue that with one exception, and possibly two, which certainly do not disprove the rule, the poor in the Psalms are a synonym for the Lord's people, and especially describes their inward disposition.  This dovetails nicely with our Lord's spiritual definition of "the poor in spirit" and his use of the word poor, to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven as taught in his first beatitude (Matthew 5:3). 

I will go through the occurrences in order.  The first is found in 9:18 and the last is found in 132:15.  The first twelve occurrences of the word poor occur in book one of the Psalms (1-41), and establish the pattern of the word's usage.  Five occurrences occur in book two Psalms (42-72) with three occurring in Psalm 72, a psalm of Solomon, which is particularly important in establishing a link with Proverbs.  There are three occurrences of the word in book three (73-89), and five times poor appears in book five (107-150).

            Psalm 9:17-18
                        17 The wicked shall return to Sheol,
                all the nations that forget God.
                        18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
                and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.

This chiastic construction parallels "Sheol" and "perish forever" in the outer frame, contrasting the wicked and the poor.  The inner frame is connected with the idea of forgetting.  Unlike the wicked/nations who forget God, the needy/poor are not forgotten by God.  The wicked forget God with the disastrous result that they will perish forever.  But the needy, who it is implied remember Him, will not perish forever.

            Psalm 10:2, 8-9
            In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
               let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised.

            His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
                        9     he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
            he lurks that he may seize the poor;
                he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.

In this psalm the wicked are pursuing and persecuting the poor and helpless.  But the truth that the poor are not just the poor in general, is shown in verse 14.  Here we see that the poor, who have been identified with the helpless in verses 8 and 9, have a commitment to the Lord.  For verse 14 says, "to you the helpless commits himself."

            Psalm 12:5
            “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan,
                I will now arise,” says the Lord;
                “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.”

Here the poor are those who long for the safety and refuge the Lord gives.  The Lord guards them from a wicked generation, which is described in the psalm.  The poor are classified with the "godly" and "faithful" of verse one, which consists of a small remnant.

            Psalm 14:6
            You would shame the plans of the poor,
              but the Lord is his refuge.

Again, the poor is not just anyone who is poor, but rather those have the Lord as their refuge.

            Psalm 34:6
            This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
                and saved him out of all his troubles.

David is the writer of this psalm.  Even though he is the king of Israel, and the richest man in the land, yet he describes himself as poor.  Since David is the small "c" christ, which means anointed one, he prefigures Christ Jesus, the true King.  In David's words we hear Christ speaking.  Starting in verse 8, David/Christ begins to teach "his children."  It is significant that verse 20 is true of Jesus, as the Righteous One, for on the cross not one of his bones was broken.

            Psalm 35:10
            “O Lord, who is like you,
            delivering the poor
                from him who is too strong for him,
                the poor and needy from him who robs him?”

After describing his suffering in verses 1-8 by the hands of those who "without cause" hated him, David/Christ joyfully describes his deliverance.  Thus, once again, the King, who by definition is fabulously wealthy, is described as poor in spirit!  So too, then, must be his people.

            Psalm 37:14
            The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
                to bring down the poor and needy,
                to slay those whose way is upright;

The poor and needy are parallel with the upright.  Thus, the poor here cannot be the literal poor.  The poor and needy are synonymous with the upright, thus, the parallelism points to the inward disposition of the upright, which is to be poor in spirit.

            Psalm 40:17
            As for me, I am poor and needy,
                but the Lord takes thought for me.
            You are my help and my deliverer;
                do not delay, O my God!

Hebrews 10:5-7 places Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus.  Since there is no change of speaker in this psalm, the entire Psalm must be regarded as the words of our Lord.  Therefore, for the third time, Jesus, through David, describes himself as poor!

            Psalm 41:1-2
            Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
                In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
            the Lord protects him and keeps him alive;
              he is called blessed in the land;
               you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.

In verses 1-3, David teaches that the Lord considers the poor and delivers them from trouble and sickness (verse 3).  He describes this trouble in words that remind us of Jesus' death and resurrection:

            They say, “A deadly thing is poured out on him;
                he will not rise again from where he lies.”
                        9 Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
                who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.
                        10 But you, O Lord, be gracious to me,
               and raise me up, that I may repay them!

Putting this all together, then, we see that the poor, who suffer but are delivered by the Lord, are imitating and participating in the sufferings and deliverance of the Christ to whom David points.

            Psalm 49:2
            Hear this, all peoples!
                Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
                        2 both low and high,
                rich and poor together!

This is the only time I can find a literal rather than a metaphorical use of the word poor in the Psalms, with one possible exception.  Here it is used together with the rich as a merism.  A merism brings together two contrasting words to refer to the whole.  Both low and high and rich and poor are merisms to emphasize that all the inhabitants of the world are addressed in Psalm 49.  This fits the emphasis of book two of the Psalms (42-72), which announces that the Davidic king is established and the world would be wise to bow before the Lord and his anointed king.

Interestingly, though, Psalm 49 contains a polemic against wealth, which is seen as a rival to God (v. 6, 13, 16-20).  In the psalm, it is not the literal poor who are saved indiscriminately, but those with understanding (v. 20), and are partakers in God's costly ransom (v. 8, 15).

            Psalm 70:5
            But I am poor and needy;
                hasten to me, O God!
            You are my help and my deliverer;
             O Lord, do not delay!

Here is another instance where David/Christ describes himself as poor and needy.  The whole earth belongs to the Lord, according to Psalm 24:1, and yet our Lord describes himself as poor!  2 Corinthians 8:9 describes the grace that has come to us in Christ:  "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).  True wealth is found in Christ Jesus through faith and love.  But that wealth is given to the poor in spirit.  Our Lord's inward disposition as the most blessed man is described in the first beatitude:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3).
            Psalm 72:2, 4, 12
            May he judge your people with righteousness,
                and your poor with justice!
            May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
                give deliverance to the children of the needy,
                and crush the oppressor!
            12 For he delivers the needy when he calls,
                the poor and him who has no helper.

First, notice that in verse two, "your people" is parallel to "your poor."  The "your' refers to God in line one.  The royal son, the Davidic king, is to judge or rule the Lord's people, to defend their cause in verse four, and to deliver them in verse 12.  In verse 17, God's royal son, whose name is to endure forever, is the one in whom God's people, the poor, are blessed.  Thus, we have Solomon, using the words poor and needy in a most significant way.  For he describes the poor as the people who belong to God and his royal son, who foreshadowed Christ.  To read the poor in Psalm 72 as the literal poor is just plain poor reading.

            Psalm 74:18-21
18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
                and a foolish people reviles your name.
                        19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts;
                do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for the covenant,
                for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence.
                        21 Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;
                let the poor and needy praise your name.

This psalm is a prayer for the Lord's exiled people.  The "enemy" and a "foolish people," who "reviles" the Lord's name, rule over his people.  The poor in verse 19 are identified with Israel, which is often pictured as a dove.  In verses 20 and 21, it is clear that the poor are members of the covenant.  Once again, the poor in the Psalms refer not to the literal poor, but metaphorically to the Lord's people.

Psalm 86:1
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
                for I am poor and needy.

In this prayer of David, we see David/Christ again describe himself as poor and needy.  This is the basis of his expectation of being heard by the Lord!  Thus, poverty is a description of the inner being of Jesus Christ and his people.  This poverty of spirit, therefore, is the right spirit for man in his humanity.  Verse two immediately follows with the words, "I am godly . . . [and] trust in You."  True riches are found, therefore, in the trust, which unites us to our God.

Psalm 109:16, 22
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
                but pursued the poor and needy
                and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.
22 For I am poor and needy,
                and my heart is stricken within me.

This is a psalm of David.  The early church saw it as about Christ in his sufferings on our behalf.  The last two verses (30-31) point to his resurrection.  The psalm focuses on the opposition to Christ, and especially on the one who would betray Jesus, namely, Judas.  Peter cites the psalm in Acts 1:20 when a successor for Judas is chosen.  Verses 16 and 22 show the close connection between Christ and his people.  Once again, our Lord is seen as the consummately poor man, in verse 22.  To attack Christ's people (16), the poor, is to attack him.  To attack Christ, the poor man, is to attack his people.  Thus, at Paul's conversion, the Lord Jesus says to Saul, who became Paul, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me" (Acts 9:4, 22:7).  Saul was persecuting Christ's people, but Jesus is so intimately linked to his people, that persecution of them is persecution of him.  Because Christ is poor in spirit, so must his people be who are united to him by faith.

Psalm 112:9
He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
                his righteousness endures forever;
                his horn is exalted in honor.

This psalm is about the blessings that come to those who fear the Lord.  And, yet, it is hard not to see Jesus as both the pattern of this fear of the Lord, and the dispenser of spiritual blessings to his people, the poor.  When verse 3 of the psalm says, "Wealth and riches are in his house," it is hard not to see an allusion to Wisdom in Proverbs 3:16 and 9:1.  Psalm 112:9 could be read of Christ, who after his exaltation gives gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8).  Or, it could be read as the good believers do for others, especially, to those in the household of God.  It seems to me, this is the one instance in the Psalms where giving to the literal poor may be in view.  But given the association of the word poor with believers, our rule for charity must follow Galatians 6:10: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."  The poor in Christ, and especially, the literal poor in Christ's church, have a priority.

Psalm 113:7-8
He raises the poor from the dust
                and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
                        8 to make them sit with princes,
                with the princes of his people.

In the Bible, repentance is associated with sackcloth, dust and ashes.  In this age, as our baptism into Christ's death signifies, daily dying with Christ is our way of life.  God only exalts the humble, who mourn their sin.  Thus, in this life we both mourn our low condition and exult in our high position as those who have been seated in the heavenly realms with Christ (Ephesians 2:6).  Our baptism is the symbol of both our continual mourning and continual joy, for we have both died with Christ and been raised with him.  Law and gospel are our rule in our Lord's church.  To do away with either is dangerous to our spiritual health.

Psalm 132:11, 13-16
11 The Lord swore to David a sure oath
                from which he will not turn back:
            “One of the sons of your body
                I will set on your throne.

13 For the Lord has chosen Zion;
                he has desired it for his dwelling place:
                        14 “This is my resting place forever;
                here I will dwell, for I have desired it.
                        15 I will abundantly bless her provisions;
               I will satisfy her poor with bread.
                        16 Her priests I will clothe with salvation,
               and her saints will shout for joy.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of David set on the throne forever (11).  He has ascended to the heavenly Zion (13-14), and he satisfies his "poor with bread" (15), clothing his people with salvation.  Significantly, this final reference to the poor points to the Lord's Supper and baptism (16).  For in the Supper he gives us the true bread of his body, and in baptism we put on Christ Jesus, "for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27).


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