When we look at the biblical examples of washing one’s hands, the most vivid picture that comes to mind is that of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate washing his hands in a vain attempt to demonstrate his innocence in the unlawful and unjust execution of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As it is written in Matthew 27:22-26: ” Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!” Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.” From this example, we get our mental picture of what it means when someone washes their hands of a problem, when someone knows the truth, as Pilate knew that Jesus was a just man and not an insurrectionist but was unwilling to risk any of his limited and precious supply of political capital to oppose the demands of the corrupt Jewish leadership.
Nevertheless, not all biblical mentions of washing hands are filled with the same sort of hypocrisy as that of Pilate, or the similarly hypocritical ceremonious and elaborate handwashing of the Pharisees which were used as a way of attacking the ritual and ceremonial cleanliness of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels. At least in one case, the Bible looks at the washing of hands in a positive sense, in the claims of David in Psalm 26 for being a morally just individual seeking the vindication of his character through divine scrutiny. It is worth at least briefly discussing this example, as most of us would not necessarily relish the thought of divine scrutiny in our lives, knowing where we fall short of the perfect standard. Even so, it is very striking that the psalmists, and not only David either, very frequently call for divine scrutiny on their motives in order to vindicate their character in the face of persistent rumor and slander. This is a matter that we can understand very easily in our world, where our innocent conduct is so frequently and so maliciously and so mercilessly attacked, to the point where even very imperfect people have the same sort of cause to call upon divine scrutiny in the knowledge that even as flawed as we are, we are far from the paragons of wickedness we are painted as in the eyes of our enemies. It is in that light that Psalm 26, a short but very straightforward appeal for a vindicating trial, is still of relevance to us today.
This matter of judicial proceedings cannot be underestimated. There are some people  who greatly underestimate the formal and legal aspect of just and decent men who initiate trials in their own defense in the scriptures. For a variety of reasons, I consider these to be covenant lawsuits, in that part of our covenantal relationship with God involves the right to a trial to vindicate our innocence in the face of libel and slander, the innuendo of false accusations, the misinterpretation of conduct and conversation, and the gabbing and gossiping that we and others so often engage in despite frequent expressions of divine displeasure against those who so act. Such trials, like the famous trial by ordeal for women accused of adultery by their jealous husbands , demonstrate that when one is in a covenantal relationship with God or with other people, the ability to use a trial to vindicate one’s character is a matter of importance. It bears noting that this is not only something of importance in the Bible, but also in secular history. For example, the capable and talented Sir John Prevost sought ,and failed, on account of an early death, to vindicate his own character and conduct during his successful defense of Canada during the War of 1812, and his reputation has been slandered for two centuries on account of the failure to vindicate his conduct against the slurs and slanders of his enemies by the British leadership of the time, leaving it to noble historians to attempt the overdue rehabilitation of his character . Not all such efforts at the rehabilitation of one’s character through a trial are successful. One is reminded of the first trial of one decadent playwright Oscar Wilde, who sued the father of his paramour for libel upon having received a public exposure of being a “somdomite.” As the misspelled accusation was, in fact, true, the libel suit was dismissed and Wilde then faced a second, and equally unsuccessful, trial for his own sin and crime. The lesson is clear. If we seek a trial for our innocence, we had better, in fact, be innocent.
It is in light of that understanding that we must view the importance of Psalm 26. As believers in a covenantal relationship with God, we have the right, if we so choose, to call on God to try us to vindicate our character. This trial may not be pleasant. Few trials are. Yet although trials are not pleasant, if we are in fact innocent, we should welcome the vindication of our character that result from them, as they can provide proof of our innocence in the eyes of the only Judge who ultimately matters, the Judge of our souls, who has in His capable hands the verdict of life or death, blessing or cursing. We do not know the particular circumstances that led David in this psalm to call for a trial to vindicate his character. There is no historical superscription that describes the specific nature of the false accusations that were against him, because this psalm does not feel it necessary to give credence to those lies by addressing them directly. The fact that this psalm came to be a part of the psalms and part of the public worship of God bears witness to the truth of David’s claims, in this particular case, of the innocence of his character. With that said, let us turn at last to examine this brief but noteworthy psalm in its entirety:
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the Lord; I shall not slip. Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my mind and my heart. For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth. I have not sat with idolatrous mortals, nor will I go in with hypocrites. I have hated the assembly of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash my hands in innocence; so I will go about Your altar, O Lord, that I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all Your wondrous works. Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells. Do not gather my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloodthirsty men, in whose hands is a sinister scheme, and whose right hand is full of bribes. But as for me, I will walk in my integrity; redeem me and be merciful to me. My foot stands in an even place; in the congregations I will bless the Lord.”
The structure of this psalm is very even and balanced. David wastes no time in getting to the point: David is being accused of all kinds of wickedness by corrupt enemies and wishes for a trial by God to vindicate his character. It may be sometimes unpleasant to read the candid self-descriptions of David about his conduct: David says that he walks in his integrity, that he has trusted in the Eternal, that he shall not slip, that he has walked in God’s truth, that he has not sat with idolaters, nor made himself the companion of hypocrites, that he has hated the gathering together of evildoers, that he refuses to sit with the wicked. He says that he will wash his hands in innocence, expecting a verdict not only of not guilty on grounds of technicality, but a positive proof and demonstration of innocence. He then expects the follow-up to the successful trial, going before the altar of God to make a public proclamation of thanksgiving and of God’s works. He openly states his self-appraisal of his conduct, baldly expresses his confidence that God will vindicate his character, and calls upon God to judge those corrupt and vicious enemies who slander his character. Little about this psalm is difficult to understand in the least; David makes his complaints and requests plain, and the psalm contains nothing that would indicate that anything went differently than what David hoped for.
Given the straightforwardness of this psalm and its evidently successful outcome, what is it that hinders us from similar efforts? Like David, we too have the right to call upon God to vindicate our character through trials that demonstrate that even though we are imperfect people, we may yet be innocent of the charges of foul conduct that are whispered against us. The long endurance of foul calumny is a trial enough, and one that can endure for ages and ages in the absence of clear vindication. Why do we shrink from seeking a definitive outcome that shows our innocence, and where we can hold our head up and praise God for His mercy as well as His justice. For David was deeply conscious of both; he knew that He was imperfect and fell short of the full and perfect obedience of God’s ways. Yet he knew as well that he was a just and godly man and not the sort of corrupt sinner that he was likely often accused of being. So it is with us. Furthermore, he knew that he had God’s spirit within him, and that it delighted God to vindicate the character of His servants. So it is with us as well. Let us therefore see in Psalm 26 the understanding that sometimes we ought to seek a trial that will allow our innocence to be seen, so that we may with David praise God in His congregation and tell of God’s glorious works, not least of which is showing His children as beings of noble character being refined into ever greater purity.
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