Although it is certainly a praisesong, Song 26 seems intended to be spoken, rather than sung. Probably because it is a self-defense, as if it were being argued in a divine court (“the abode of Your house”, v.8), before the judge, Adonai. No prosecutor; simply the closing arguments of the defendant. That argument is framed by two verbs that sound, clarion, a plea — “Judge” in v. 1; “Redeem”, v. 11.
The defendant argues that his righteousness merits God’s testing him. The verb “try” suggests that it is God who has put him on trial:
Test me, Adonai, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience* and my heart. ()v. 2)
Both his body and his soul exemplify, he believes, his worthiness. Thus he lists the purity of his kidneys and heart (v. 2), the cleanliness of his palms (v. 6), and the steadiness of his feet (v. 12) as testifying to his integrity, a quality itself manifested by his avoidance of liars (v. 4), despising of evildoers (v. 5), and shunning of bloodthirsty men (v. 9). Through God’s testing of him –indeed, His judging of him– he will prove, he argues, his righteousness. His evidence he presents, repeatedly throughout his testimony, through the metaphor of walking:
For I have walked in my wholeness (v. 2) ….
I shall not stumble (v. 2)….
and I shall walk in Your truth (v. 3)….
But I shall walk in my wholeness (v. 11)….**
As his own advocate, he separates himself from evildoers (verses 4, 5, 9, 10); their hands, holding onto plots and open to bribes (v. 10), the antithesis to his own washed palms. Two polar opposite verbs emphasize –in effect, shout out– the difference he asserts between himself and them: hate and love. Verse 5 declares, “I despised the assembly of evildoers”; verse 8, “Adonai, I love the abode of Your house”. Although his purpose is to make sure that God distinguishes between him and the evildoers, the verses describing those evildoers pertain solely to his relationship with them. In contrast, all the other verses of the song concern his relationship with God alone. Thus one line of each of these verses describes the defendant’s gratitude to God, and the other line, the Godly qualities for which he is grateful. Verse 3, as an example:
The effect of this contiguity is that God is not only the defendant’s judge, but, indeed, his one witness. His argument, begun with the plea, “Judge me”, ends with “Redeem me”. A puzzle. If he is so sure of his wholeness, of the worthiness of both his body and his soul, why does he ask for redemption? Actually, the very request, “Judge me”, reveals his humility. His is not an arrogant statement of self-praise. He stands, in his perceived court, with confidence; indeed, his metaphor of walking alters, in the closing verse, to that of standing –“My foot stands on level ground” (v. 12)– as if to show how sure he is of his own rectitude. His realization seems to be that redemption rests upon –that is, it is the result of– judgement. Only after God has passed judgement upon the defendant, can he be redeemed.
At his argument’s close, having put forth his case, the defendant asks of God one boon: “grant me grace” (v. 11). Even though he is righteous, David realizes that redemption is a matter of God’s grace rather than David’s right. In turn, he will join with the chorus of the righteous who sing blessings to Adonai. The argued defense transforms into song.
*The English “conscience” is actually “kidneys” (the seat of the conscience, in Biblical belief) in Hebrew.
**The past tense of “have walked” in verse 2 alters to the future “shall walk” in verse 11, indicating the defendant’s certainty that his future will mirror his past acts and intentions.