A Prayer in Anguish – Translating Psalm 143

Crushed, pursued, and half dead, this psalmist cries out to a God who is not responding. While falling into the grave, they still believe. They still have faith in the God of history, and that the character of God means they will be saved. This psalm tightly weaves the dire reality of the one praying together with the faithful righteousness of God. Nearly every verse includes their situation and their wonders of God.

Psalm 143
A Prayer in Anguish

1LORD, hear my prayer, 
turn your ear toward my plea, *
in your faithfulness and righteousness, answer me.
2And do not place judgment against Your servant, *
for no one living is righteous before You.

3For the enemy pursues my soul,
they crush my life into the ground, *
making me dwell in the darkness, with those long dead.
4So my spirit is weakening within me, *
within me, my heart is in desolation.

5I remember the days of old,
meditate on all that you have done, *
and reflect on the works of your hands.
6I spread out my hands to you, *
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
7Quickly, LORD, answer me, *
for my spirit fails.
Don't hide your face from me, *
or I will follow those going down into the pit.

8Let the morning bring word of your faithfulness, *
for I trust in you.
Show me the way I should go, *
for I lift my soul to you.

9Save me from my enemies, LORD, *
in you, I take refuge.
10Teach me to do your will, *
for you are my God.
May your good spirit lead me on level ground; *
11 For your name's sake, LORD, revive me.
In your righteousness, *
deliver my soul from trouble.

12And in your faithfulness, put an end to my enemies,
and ruin all who attack my soul, *
for I am your servant.

A Dire Situation

Let us start with the psalmist’s situation. This psalm is attributed to David. Like others attributed to him, there is a lack of concrete details here to place it within the narratives we have of David in scripture. What a horrible circumstance to be in.

This person is being chased, crushed, and brought to the brink of death. We see this in verse 3 and 11. In the first we have this phrase of “dwell in darkness“. This is how death was understood. After one died, they would descend into Sheol. There was no distinction between good or bad people. Everyone who has died is there. That this is in reference to Sheol is made clear with the end of verse 3 with “those long dead.” Then at the end we find the psalmist again pleading with the Lord to revive them. One needs to be in an incredibly dire state to need reviving.

Pleading to the Character of God

Again and again in this psalm the pleas are made to the character of God. The gravity of the situation has led the psalmist to place themself in stark contrast to their Lord. After reading these verses, it is clear that they will meet their end without God’s intervention.

They believe. They make their case in so many ways; exalting the Lord’s righteousness, recollecting their mighty deeds, appealing to their holy way and name.

At the end of all this, the psalmist’s plea is rather simple. It goes a bit something like this.

“God, in comparison to you, I am nothing. I have done none of your works, lack your righteousness, don’t know your way, and my spirit & life are failing me. Yet, unlike them, I long to follow you and exalt your name. Save me and crush my enemies.”

Much of this makes sense in light of Jesus. Except for the call to destroy and ruin all their enemies. This makes no sense within Christianity. For everyone is a child of God beloved, treasured, and of immeasurable worth.

What do we do with the Imprecatory Verses?

The psalms are wonderful expressions of the psalmists. They are showing us how they understand and relate to God. This way of relating may be unique to them (as David might have understood himself to have a unique relationship with God), or encapsulate the wider understanding.

What shall do we do with lines like “put an end to my enemies, and ruin all who attack my soul“? Let me say firstly, I found a softer way to translate this. A more direct translation would be: “destroy my enemies, and eliminate all who attack my soul“. These words are clearly the psalmists. It is a desire and plea they are making to God. A plea made in the midst of their fear, terror, and dying.

Just like with you and me, God does not give us all we ask for. There is no indication that this request was answered. We have no record of a situation like the one described in the life of David being resolved in this way. It is okay to express wild, terrified, and violent requests to God. Leave them with the Lord.

In Romans, we have this line that I have come to deeply appreciate. “Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord.” At first pass, it might seem as if this tells us God will do what the psalmist pleads. However, the Lord has the right to all vengeance against me as well. So what is His response?

Jesus tells us that the Lord’s response is grace, forgiveness, and love. We should let all our desires for violence belong to the Lord. He will weigh them, and respond to them with forgiveness and love. May we do likewise.

Selecting a Title

The Latin title given to this Psalm is ‘Hominis Graviter Ægrotantis Oratio’ or ‘The Speech of a Grievously Sick Person/Man’. For our title, we’ve chosen to use the type of speech shown to us in the opening of the Psalm; weeping/crying out. Next we looked at the fullness of the psalm and could not discern in what way the person was sick. It is clear that the person’s life has broken their body and spirit. My hope is that this will be more inclusive of the psalmists despair, weakness, and frailty. Our title is ‘The Cries of a Broken Person.’

Initial Translation Finished 12 August 2023 · Psalm Reading Level: 4th Grade

Translations for Urban Monastic are open to refinement and improvement. This has been translated. Yet, this is a reminder that no translation is ever complete. Cultures change, languages change, we better understand the source texts and languages, and adapt them as they get used in context. We will continue to refine and enhance our translations. If you are interested in helping, please let us know!

Photo Credit
Paul Prins on 9 November 2018 in Minneapolis, United States.