Over the past few years, there has been a significant movement within the greater culture. This movement involves women stepping forward who have been sexually abused and who have either never spoken up about it or had their voices silenced. This tragic reality is not contained to secular culture but is a problem within evangelical churches as well. Too often have victims been blamed or accused themselves when they try to come forward about what happened to them. This post will look at the ways to understand the statements of innocence within Psalm 7, 17, 26, 86, and how they can be appropriated for situations of abuse today. Attention will then focus on application for both the victim and how a proper understanding of these statements can aid pastors and church leaders in coming alongside victims of abuse.

Statements of Innocence Understood

When reading through the Psalms, the claims of blamelessness and innocence can be uncomfortable for modern readers.[1] These are statements in which the Psalmist appeals to their own life as a basis for God to act. Calling God to action usually involves the Psalmist linking their innocence with an attribute of God.[2] The question we often have today is, how can these statements be understood? Answering this question will establish guidelines for present-day application. There are three main ways for us to understand these statements as they are communicated in the book of Psalms. The first is innocence in the situation, second covenant fidelity as opposed to the wicked, and third trust in God.[3]

Innocence in the Situation

A common way these Psalms seem to be qualified is by understanding the Psalmist to be innocent in the lamentable situation. An indicator of this is the language used. Within multiple Psalms that include a statement of innocence is an expression of vindication. In Psalm 7:8 the phrase “judge me”[4] indicates vindication, parallel passages such as 1 Samuel 24:15 make this clear as do other translations that use “vindicate me” (NIV).[5] Psalm 17:2 says, “let my vindication come,” and Psalm 26:1 includes “vindicate me” in the opening cry of the Psalmist’s lament. 

Many of the Psalms that include these statements are also Psalms of the falsely accused.[6] These are situations in which the Psalmist finds themselves needed to appeal to God for their innocence in the situation. This reality, itself, serves as a qualifier to outright innocence in all cases and narrows it to the present situation. As Michael Wilcock points out, commenting on Psalm 7, “David was protesting not that he was sinless, but simply that he was innocent of this particular charge.”[7]

Contrast With the Ways of the Wicked

Often the statements of innocence find a contrast with the character of those around the Psalmist. Especially the character of those who are oppressing them. Understanding this contrast will be helpful for any who want to apply statements of innocence today. This builds off the above discussion of the Psalmist being an innocent party. But it differentiates itself by appealing to God’s dealing with those who walk upright as opposed to those who live wickedly. The contrast seems to be between God’s covenant people and those who are outside the covenant. If true, this would echo the two paths language of Psalm 1, a Psalm that Tremper Longman calls “the gatekeeper of the literary sanctuary.” [8]

What differentiates the Psalmist is their association with the covenant love of God and its impact on their life. The word “hesed” is used many times in these Psalms. This word is associated with “goodness or kindness”[9] and is often used in connection with “God’s covenant relationship with His people.”[10] The word is used in these Psalms as an appeal for God to act. It further serves as something that drives the obedience of the Psalmist. A clear example is Psalm 26:3. The verse has synonymous parallelism between the loyal love of God (a) being before their eyes (b) and their walking (b’) in God’s faithfulness (a’). Allen Ross connects the response of the Psalmist with the covenantal love of God.[11] The Psalmist is appealing to God’s love for His people and God’s justice against the wicked.

Trust in God

Another way the statements of innocence work is that the Psalmist is appealing to their trust in God. Psalm 86 is an example. In verse 2, the Psalmist refers to themselves as “godly” (ESV). This word is translated “faithful to you” in the NIV and “loyal” in the NET. It is related to the word for God’s steadfast love, as mentioned above, and carries connotations of trusting in God. The idea of trust is made clear in the parallelism. Godly is related to “trusts in you” in the following line of verse 2. Knowing this connection can help us nuance what the Psalmist is trying to communicate. They are not claiming absolute perfection, but they are using their trust in God as an appeal for Him to act in their situation.

In addition to Psalm 86, Psalm 26 also links the Psalmist’s innocence with trust in God. Verse 1 discusses walking in integrity and trusting in the Lord. These are progressively linked to “without wavering.” Though the focus may be on the latter, the former idea of trust rightfully qualifies what the Psalmist is communicating. Gerald Wilson agrees that for the Psalmist, the blameless life is not “sinless perfection but… ‘unwavering trust’ in God.” [12]

Statements of Innocence and Abuse Victims

When we break down some of the themes of the Psalms that include statements of innocence, we can begin to have categories for how these can be used for Christians today. The focus of this paper is to see how these statements might be appropriated for sexual abuse victims. Because of this, each of the previous sections will be applied to the current situation to see the similarities.

Victims are Innocent in the Situation

It is not uncommon to hear those who come forward with stories of abuse to be questioned or lectured about their role in the situation. There is overlap between Psalms with statements of innocence and Psalms of the falsely accused (Ps. 7, 17). Unfortunately, those who come forward about abuse can quickly turn into the accused themselves. Here victims know the agony and despair that are produced in these Psalms. There are feelings of being surrounded (Ps. 17:11), being outnumbered (Ps. 86:14), of injustice (Ps. 26:10). When those around them do not listen to their declaration of innocence, they can know that God can discern the truth. Victims can appeal to God’s righteousness in their situation (Ps. 7:7; 17:15).

Those who are coming alongside victims can learn from the language of the Psalmist as well. From these Psalms, they can get a picture of the pain of not being heard and the agony of crying out for vindication. Abuse survivors, such as Rachael Denhollander, understand what this is like. This is why she begins her book, What is a Girl Worth, saying, “For Every survivor… It is not your fault. It is not your shame. You are believed.”[13]

The Contrast of Innocent Victim and Wicked Abusers

Added to the pain of those who have been abused is the contrast with their wicked abusers. This is especially true when we look at abuse from within a church setting. It is the wicked who often are seen as beneficiaries of God’s covenantal love and blessings. Often the deeds of the abusers are left hidden to the world at large, and victims are left in the condition of the Psalmist, crying out for vindication and refuge. This is one application for today; those who have experienced this great injustice can cry out and appeal to their innocence in connection with God’s covenantal love for them. Even as their abusers may look like the favored ones of God, God knows and can search hearts.

Second, when victims come forward, or when others hear about it, they must take care not to hurt the victim further by dismissing their claims. Further hurt happens by refuting the victim with stories of the virtues of the abuser. Dismissal of abuse claims is too prevalent in churches today, especially if the person is in full-time ministry. Rachael Denhollander points this out when she says that she would not be heard in the church but would be “vilified” and “shunned” for speaking out against an evangelical leader.[14] Instead, leaders should care for and hear those who have been abused. This follows the advice of Justin Holcomb, who gives recommendations for pastors in these situations, saying, “stand with the vulnerable and powerless.”[15]

Trusting in God

Those who have been abused can cry out based on their trust in God. There are many stories from victims who desire to live for the Lord, and yet the abuse happened.[16] In these situations, victims can cry out based on their trust in the Lord and desire to live for Him. This basis doesn’t mean that the victim is blameless in all things, but they can cry out to God based on their desire to pursue Him and trust in His way. They can also pray for God to continue to give them the grace to trust Him (Ps 86:11, 16).

Those who come alongside those who are abused should take note of this theme in the statements of innocence. Those who experience abuse can feel shame and disgrace that is not from their sin. The Psalmist pleads that the oppressors will bear the shame while they receive comfort (Ps. 86:17). For those ministering alongside those who have been abused, it is important not to play Job’s friends. They looked for blame in the victim. Instead, they should help to cover and protect and, in doing so, reflect the God of refuge (Ps. 7:1; 17:7).

Conclusion

The statements of innocence may appear at first as if they have no connection for us today, but on a closer look, they are especially crucial for us to understand and appropriate. As we understand the main threads of innocence in the situation, God’s covenant love, and personal trust and obedience, we can apply them to our present circumstance. Those who have experienced abuse can use the language of innocence in their appeals to God. All who come alongside them can learn from these Psalms how to minister well.

*This originally appeared as a paper submitted to Grand Rapids Theological Seminary on Feb 5, 2020.


[1] Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth Tanner, “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41,” in The Book of Psalms, ed. E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 263.

[2] C. Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction, Second Edition., Encountering biblical studies (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 132.

[3] Kyu Nam Jung, “Prayer in the Psalms,” in Teach Us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1990), 56.

[4] All Scripture is ESV unless otherwise noted.

[5] There is not space to give fuller treatment in this post. However, this association with vindication was provided in an interpretation paper on Psalm 7. If you’d like that, please email me.

[6] For list, see Bullock, Encountering Psalms, 133. or C. C. Broyles, “Lament, Psalms Of,” ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 389.

[7] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms: Songs for the People of God, ed. J. A. Motyer, vol. 1, The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 36.

[8] Tremper Longman III, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 15–16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), 35.

[9] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 338–339.

[10] Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 211.

[11] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms 189: Commentary, vol. 1, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011–2013), 613–614.

[12] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 472.

[13] See dedication in Rachael Denhollander, What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics (Carol Stream: Tyndale Momentum, 2019).

[14] Kate Shellnutt, “Sovereign Grace Disputes Rachael Denhollander’s Remarks,” News & Reporting, accessed February 5, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/february/sovereign-grace-rachael-denhollander-sgm-abuse-ct-interview.html.

[15] Kate Shellnutt, “1 in 10 Young Protestants Have Left a Church Over Abuse,” News & Reporting, accessed February 5, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/may/lifeway-protestant-abuse-survey-young-christians-leave-chur.html.

[16] See, for example, the story of Ellie Cowan, here “Wheaton College Coeds Say Bilezikian Sexually Harassed Them; College Accused of Mishandling Reports,” Julie Roys, last modified February 4, 2020, accessed February 5, 2020, https://julieroys.com/wheaton-college-coeds-say-bilezikian-sexually-harassed-them-college-accused-of-mishandling-reports/.