The 13th is one of the more obscure pieces in the Psalter. I find it one of the more passionate expressions of lament in the entire Bible, touching on a basic human fear of loss, ridicule, and abandonment. And so often when we sin, when we become aware of our sinfulness, that is what we might fear, no?
The USCCB has a new edition of the Rite of Penance, incorporating the newest Lectionary translations. I recommend this edition, as it contains the full texts of the Scripture readings (RP 101-201), which the Rites books do not contain. Many older versions of the Rite of Penance do not contain them either. (Maybe your confessor’s iPad has them, though.)
The given antiphon for Psalm 13 is:
My hope, O Lord, is in your mercy.
The psalmist blasts out a complaint against God right away:
How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?
Nothing like getting one’s cards on the table before God. He knows, of course. We don’t have to shy away from speaking our mind.
“How long” becomes a litany for the psalmist. Not unlike the affectionate, yet annoying query from the back seat on a long trip. In this case, how long “will you hide your face … shall I harbor sorrow … grief … will my enemy triumph?” Ah! We get fairly quickly to the psalmist’s real beef with God. Why do bad things happen to me? Why do other people gloat over my misfortune? I suppose it was more of a serious question for a culture in which bad things happened to bad people, and good things happened to good. God was a God of consequences, and if any sinner stepped over the line, payback was coming.
Verse 4a is insistent, yet it contains an important petition:
Look, answer me, O Lord, my God!
The psalmist gets past the whiney “How long,” and gets to the root of it. We acknowledge God is in control, and we know we have to go to God. We offer a petition:
Give light to my eyes that I may not sleep in death …
Light. Wisdom. Awareness. As long as my eyes are open, I won’t be dead. (I suppose.) The psalmist would still prefer not to be bested and beset by enemies and foes.
Verse 6 is beautiful and one of my favorites in the Bible. The prayer is uttered similarly in many other places in the Psalter and beyond. But given the context of complaint and persecution, it strikes me as especially tender:
Though I trusted in your mercy,
Let my heart rejoice in your salvation;
let me sing of the Lord, “He has been good to me.”
This is perfect. God’s mercy is a matter of trust. We acknowledge we cannot be ironclad sure. We complain, “How long.” So a part of us wonders. But we place ourselves on the path of salvation. We put our hearts where God can reach. We put our song into God’s ear. And what we sing is not a big, long-winded, and wordy thing. More often our complaints are. But we sing simply, “He has been good to me.” And sometimes, that’s just enough to place us within the Almighty’s good graces. And in reconciliation to God, that’s what we’re asking, right?