Meditation on Psalm 69


“Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness.”  Psalm 69: 20

“Some say the heart is just like a wheel: when you bend it, you can’t mend it. . .”

Anna McGarrigle, “Heart Like A Wheel”

Yes, there is value in reading the old translations of the Bible.   It is true that in many places the old translations are obscure.  The English language has changed so much in the time between the King James Version and now that sometimes the meaning is completely lost on a modern reader.  On another day I will argue for the poetic value of the old translations – how they sound and stick in the mind:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed . . .

Okay, that doesn’t really convey exactly what was going on.  It was not really a tax as we think of it today, it was more like a census.  But what a beautiful, direct sentence;  what cadence.
But all of that is a subject for another day.  Today I want to consider that the King James Version of the Bible is actually, in and of itself, a part of our history and culture.  So many of the words and phrases there have been plowed into our consciousness.
As I read Psalm 69 this morning I heard again the familiar themes of grief and trouble and cries for salvation and justice.  All quite dramatic and sincere, but in a sense, just more of the same.  Then I came to verse 20 and to this phrase: “Reproach hath broken my heart. . .”
“Broken my heart?”  What a cliché.   It almost sounds like the Psalmist has been listening to country music.  But, of course, it is actually the other way around.   Right here in this little Psalm is the only place in the Bible that this phrase is used.  I’m willing to bet that this is the birthplace of this idiom, this figure of speech, which has pervaded our culture for generations.  Point number one: that’s how important the Bible is – even from a secular point of view, it is impossible to have a deep understanding of our culture and, indeed, our language, without a familiarity with the Bible.
Point number two is deeper.  Let’s meditate for a moment on the meaning or poetic value of the phrase.  Forget for a moment the overuse and the cry-in-your-beer connotations that country, blues and rock music have given it and think anew what the words mean.
The Hebrew might also have been translated something like this:  “My inner life – the soul of me, my hopes and aspirations, my confidence – has been crushed, extinguished.”
Why has this little phrase so taken hold in our culture?  Let me venture a guess.  Because this is what actually happens to us.  All of us.  Yes.  Our inner lives, our inmost hopes and aspirations are crushed.  Not always – as in the country songs – by an unrequited love or an unfaithful lover.  Sometimes that; but there are a thousand ways hearts are broken, and all of us know intimately at least one of them.
And the phrase does not say “wounded” or even “deeply affected.”  It says “broken.”  That means that the thing is rendered useless.  It means that the thing doesn’t work any more.
How can you mend a broken heart?  Is Anna McGarrigle  right when she says that the heart is like a wheel – when you bend it, you can’t mend it?
If the heart is the inner strength, the inner life, and it for whatever reason is not merely injured but actually broken, that means it can no longer raise the will.  It cannot will itself back to health, back to where it actually operates to motivate us through life.  Some outside help is needed;  and that is the mission of Jesus Christ:

Luke 4:18

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted . . .


2 thoughts on “Meditation on Psalm 69”

  1. A reader writes:

    A bigger question for me on your first point, the current issue, is whether it matters in earth time if broken hearts are mended. I agree that the only way for that is through Christ, but wonder if it is too indulgent to expect it to happen in our earthly life. There are severe physical ailments which cannot be fixed on earth, but Christians in that circumstance have hope. I want people with either broken hearts or physical ailments to get whatever repair they need, but if no repairs are made in their earthly life, I hope they find the eternal repair that Christ’s salvation offers.

    As to the other point, the one for a future day, I could not agree more. Many times I have marveled at the poetry, the beauty really, of the King James version. Some of that poetry and beauty just cannot be conveyed in any other version. I read other versions now, and find them necessary for me, especially when reading Paul’s letters. CS Lewis was making your point about the cultural importance of scripture’s influence when he said secular references to scripture are most effective when understated. You are right on the money when you ask the question of where these expressions in common use have come from. I think that was what Lewis was hoping would happen.

    My response:

    It’s a fair question. Undoubtedly there are heartbreaks and injustices that will never be settled or satisfied this side of Jordan. Most of them. And nobody should expect perfect justice and complete fulfillment on this side. But the thing that occurs to me lately is that folks (maybe me) just kind of go day to day grinding it out and expecting nothing but more of the same. I wonder how healthy that is. “It’s all going to come right in the end, but there is nothing – not even anything to expect – that is going to happily surprise or even partially heal the wounds on this side of Jordan, so we should just put our heads down and soldier on.” I can see that kind of attitude creeping in to lives.

    But there is a verse somewhere in Hebrews that says something like “For without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he exists and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” The idea in that verse that stands out to me these days is that if we’re going to have communion with the true God, we must believe that he is a rewarder. If we are imagining some God who does not reward, well, that ain’t the real God. Maybe it simply means reward in heaven, but maybe not. Maybe we need to anticipate that some reward is now, right now.

    It seems possible that if we are not looking for any sort of satisfaction, healing, or reward in this life that the here-and-now rewards that God actually intends for us, well, we could let them pass right by.


  2. The reader replies:

    The idea that we deserve anything should be secondary to our gratitude that ultimately, we have been given everything. It would be a miserable existence with no hope or longing for things real or imagined on earth. My desire, speaking only for me, is for proper perspective.


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