Convinced of his integrity, the writer of Psalm 26 pleads for vindication with a confidence that tender souls might find disturbing.
We must understand that the writer has done precisely what the ‘wisdom psalms’ instruct the novice in life to do if he wants to become both just and wise. The psalmist can speak transparently about his trajectory in life because he has followed the game plan. It is not that he has beat out his neighbors in some cheap contest of personal rectitude. Rather, YHWH’s plan for the development of a human life has proved reliable. Except, so far, for the part about vindication.
Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth. (Psalm 26:1–3 NIV)
Along the way, the psalmist diagnoses the human hand, his own and those belonging to his doubters.
I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, O LORD. (Psalm 26:6 NIV)
Context makes clear that the action is cultic rather than hygienic. There is no germ theory at play in the description, rather a picture of the man who by established force of discipline, the result of years of small decisions in the same direction, fulfills his responsibilities in worship. He claims a testable record of conduct, not only in the social commitments to justice that stand at the core of biblical wisdom, but also with regard to the public recognition of his Creator and the solidarity with his community that make such ‘religious’ activity thick and social rather than thin and merely private.
Yet other hands have been differently engaged. We learn this in a plea:
Do not sweep my soul away with sinners, nor my life with bloodthirsty men, in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. (Psalm 26:9–10 ESV)
The grammar of Psalm 26’s poetry moves from the general the specific. Bearing down after the more generic ‘sinners’, the writer comes to a specific kind: ‘bloodthirsty men’. So we ought probably to read ‘evil devices’ as general, with ‘bribes’ as a specific example.
We can only wonder at what other things conspiring hands have got up to. The menu of disorder flatters itself with variety. Yet we know from the example we are offered—bribery—that such activities are the very opposite of transparency. What you see, in the schemes of wicked people, is almost never what you get. This kind of busy hand disfigures reality rather than shaping it towards its potential. The murmur of the quick-handed gloats about distorting justice rather then deploying it for the common good.
Meanwhile, a world away—for the realism of biblical wisdom understands that the just and the wicked inhabit parallel universes, even when their living spaces lie just across a hedgerow or one number apart on a shared elevator—the innocent person washes holy hands in worship, wondering what need she’ll meet this evening among the people, what testimony of grace she might offer the downhearted, what word of gratitude might crescendo unexpectedly into a song.