Honor and Shame

by Catherine McNiel on September 20, 2022

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
    turn your ear to me and save me.
                                                                                           —Psalm 71:1-2

When we attempt to read the ancient words of the Bible with our modern, Western eyes, we don’t realize the blindspots we have—that’s why they’re called blindspots. But with feedback from others who see the word differently, we can begin to learn.

One way that the culture of the Bible—and the majority of the world still today—differs from our Western mindset is in the area of honor/shame. In an honor/shame culture, the honor of your family, tribe, nation, or group you represent is the primary thing that matters. Rather than an emphasis on an individual’s sense of guilt vs grace, or an individual’s personal success or failure, the focus is on the group—and all associated with the group—appearing to the outside world as honorable. That’s a goal everyone is accountable to achieve together.

For example, remember when Elijah called down fire from heaven hot enough to burn through even an altar drenched with water? This sort of dramatic event is called a power encounter, an ancient demonstration that Yahweh, not Baal, was the deity who could properly provide not only daily provision but honor. Baal, and his prophets, were not proven evil or nonexistent: they were put to shame.

With this in mind, turn to today’s reading in Psalm 71, and look at these words through the frame of honor and shame. The psalmist, clearly in need, is negotiating with God. Pointing out that he needs deliverance, he indicates subtly-yet-clearly that if he is publicly shamed by his enemies, then God too will be shamed. After all, everyone knows that the psalmist has put his faith in God. Is God too weak to help? Is God unfaithful to those who look to Him (an absolutely unthinkable accusation in such a culture)?

Of course not. The psalmist is confident that he will not be put to shame, for this would shame God Himself. Instead, the psalmist is confident that in due time, he will have the joyful task of lifting honor and praise to the God who lifted him up. 

Questions for reflection and discussion: Where do you see the words shame and honor in Psalm 71? How do we use these words in our culture? What is the psalmist’s relationship to God as we see here? How would you express this need and praise to God?

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