The Psalms, God’s Justice and Nasty Curses
October 13, 2019
Yikes, are you sure you read the right passage, Paul?—I don’t know if I want to preach on that. Before we dive into this difficult text, our children are welcome to head off to our Discovery Team time.
Today we’re starting a new sermon series on the book of Psalms as a mirror for our souls. The Psalms occupy a unique place in Scripture and if we know how to approach them, they can reveal much to us about what it means to be human. When we open the book of Psalms we see very real human emotions and experiences that we can relate to. We don’t necessarily learn more information about God from the Psalms, but we learn more about ourselves and how we are able to relate to God with different emotions that can change as quickly as Cheney’s weather patterns lately. The Psalms act as a mirror held up for our souls, revealing what exists at the depths of the human condition, and how we are able to respond to God out of the breadth and depth of emotions we experience.
The book of Psalms has been described as the prayer-book of the Bible, because that’s exactly what it is: it is a book made up of 150 different prayers and songs that were compiled for individual and communal worship. These prayers have been prayed by Jews and Christians for thousands of years.
Most of us are familiar with at least a few Psalms, none being more popular than Psalm 23—the Lord is my shepherd. Now if you’re like me, then on occasion you might open to a random Psalm in order to get your daily dose of spirituality. Usually that works great; I open to some Psalm that praises God for His immeasurable blessings, or sometimes I open to one that is crying out to God for help, which I can also relate to. But then if I’m unlucky enough I’ll open to Psalm 109 and find that blistering piece of work that Paul/Cindy just read for us. That’s one of those parts of the Bible we like to immediately turn the page on – nope, nothing to see here!
Psalm 109 is probably the most difficult and most embarrassing Psalm for those of us Christians who are too pious and too God-fearing to ever imagine praying with such venomous and vindictive thoughts. When I was taught how to pray in Sunday school as a child I remember getting a list of all the possible things you could pray to God for; I don’t remember seeing on that list the possibility that I could pray for God to rain down curses on my enemy or to ask in humble supplication that my enemy’s children might become fatherless and his wife a widow. Perhaps Psalm 109 is one of those psalms that you must be this tall in order to pray.
In all seriousness though, what do we do with a psalm like this? It might be easier to write it off if it was the only psalm that had spiteful or vindictive things to say, but it’s actually one of many prayers that make up an entire category of psalms known as the imprecatory psalms. Imprecatory means to call down curses upon an enemy. And in these psalms, the psalmist is calling down curses upon his enemy in God’s name – and then they have the audacity to praise God for it! Other major imprecatory psalms like 69 and 137 ask God to dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks and ask that God would not listen to the prayers of those who are wicked. What do we do with these Psalms? These don’t seem like the type of prayers that nice Christians of faith should be praying. These seem like they should be on the black list of prayers.
And indeed there has been a lot of creative exegesis, theologizing and hoop jumping over the years in order to try to make this psalm more palatable and “appropriate” for Christians. A number of commentators and pastors try to argue that this psalm is an example of a prayer from someone who isn’t that faithful to God, or who doesn’t understand God’s love well enough. Others argue that this prayer made sense before Jesus, but now that we have Jesus this is an inappropriate prayer to pray; this psalm was part of an understanding of the old law that Jesus abolished.
And there are some Bible translations that have sneakily added a couple words before verse 6, which place the hateful curses not in the mouth of the psalmist, but in the mouth of his adversary; these translations add the words “they say” before the curses, in order to denote that it is the adversaries who say such terrible things, because surely the person of God is not capable of thinking such things. However, there is no textual support in the Hebrew for such an addition; it is the work of those who are uncomfortable with such a prayer coming from the mouth of someone who is supposedly so faithful and trusting in God.
Now, we can understand the knee-jerk reaction to try to explain this psalm away; it’s uncomfortable for us. If this is God’s Word, and if this prayer is inspired by God, then that can cause some issues. But the problem with assuming that this type of prayer can’t possibly come from a person of real faith, is that this judgment flies in the face of our human experience. Such a judgment wants to place a protective wall between hate and faith, when in fact most of us know that in the midst of confidence in God we still find ourselves with these curses on our lips and in our hearts.
There are probably few if any of us in this room who can say with confidence that we have never wished for God to curse someone who has hurt us or a loved one. When we read Psalm 109, we may cringe a bit, but if we’re honest enough with ourselves, we can probably remember the times and the people we have prayed a prayer of this sort about. Sometimes it’s people we knew personally – those who have done damage in our lives or in the lives of friends/family. Sometimes it’s people we don’t know personally – the man with a gun who massacred a school full of children; the person who takes advantage of vulnerable women and men; the system that separates children from their parents at our nation’s southern border; the drunk driver who stole the life of someone innocent.
Anger—the type of anger that desires vengeance, is a real human emotion and it is one we often don’t know what to do with. The thirst for vengeance, when palpably powerful can only be dealt with in three ways.
The first is for that vengeance to be acted upon, as it often is among us, in violent ways. We live in a society that is deeply geared towards vengeance and at times worships acts of vengeance as patriotism. This reality is unmistakably evident in our harsh communal punishments, including capital punishment, in the extremity of “road rage”, in all sorts of “economic reforms” that reflect vengeance toward the poor, and in aggressive military policy that is sometimes based on a desire to punish those with whom we disagree. Vengeance is all too disgustingly obvious in the political sphere, as democrats and republicans each try to one up and attack the other, all in the name of “what is best for the nation”. All of this public threat is matched, of course, by domestic violence toward women and children, as though brutality is a primary method for resolving problems in relationships.
It doesn’t take a devout Christian to realize that acting out of our thirst for vengeance does immeasurable damage and certainly cannot be what God hopes we will do with such raw emotions.
The second way we can deal with our anger and thirst for vengeance is to deny it and bury it deep inside, pretending it doesn’t exist. This, I think, is the approach taken by many who would choose to gloss over Psalm 109 and argue that such a prayer of vengeance cannot possibly be prayed by a nice, faithful Christian. However, I think most of us recognize that to deny the thirst for vengeance as an authentic human experience is to cause more damage down the road. Bottled up emotions bubble out in destructive ways when least intended.
On top of that, how else are we supposed to respond to the injustices of this world? Sadness certainly, but to deny our inner emotions of rage at injustice and the mistreatment of human lives in our world is to deny how abominable and morally-atrocious such things are. What if the raw feeling of rage at injustice is a gift from God, meant to grab our attention and compel us towards seeking change, rather than being an emotion we need to be embarrassed by.
As Christians I believe we do more harm than good when we try to censor and bury our anger, our thirst for vengeance; we must do something with it. And so I want to suggest that Psalm 109 and the other imprecatory psalms compel us to deal with our thirst for vengeance in a third way. In Psalm 109, the author, said to be David, certainly does not deny his thirst for vengeance, but he also does not act upon this thirst. Instead, he articulates his anger to God, the Almighty Judge.
David does something constructive with his anger—he writes a prayer with it and uses it as an opportunity to engage with God. “My God, don’t turn a deaf ear to my prayer! Liars have surrounded me. They return my good with evil and my love with hate. They trample the poor and needy and all they do is curse others. Oh God, I am poor and needy; save me from those who do not show steadfast love towards their community, but instead do immeasurable damage and violence. Wipe them out so they can no longer do harm. Blot out their family and remove their land and wealth so they no longer retain the power to do such terrible things to the innocent. Let them know with your power that their evil will not go unpunished.
“God, I praise you for your justice; I praise you that you do not let the wicked off the hook. I trust that you will save us and that your judgment will have the final word. You are always at hand to take the side of the needy and to rescue a life from the unjust judge.”
David appeals to God on the basis of God’s justice. David has experienced the damage of those who lack hesed. Hesed in Hebrew means steadfast love, and it was the foundation for a thriving community of shalom. (repeat is after me) If someone did not practice hesed towards their neighbors then damage was done to the whole community. David is crying out on behalf of the poor and needy who have been hurt by the lack of hesed, by the lack of neighborly love; and David identifies himself with the poor and needy because he feels he has been deeply wronged as well. Notice what David is effectively doing in this prayer though: he is acknowledging his inability to deal properly with the wickedness of his adversaries. He does not put his faith in his own ability to enact vengeance, but instead he brings his thirst for vengeance to God as an offering, putting his faith in God’s justice.
The authors of these imprecatory psalms, which include 109, had a strong sense of right and wrong. And their strong sense of right and wrong dealt directly with God’s justice. Any sin against the individual or the community was a sin against God. And so even as David is appealing to God on the basis of his own sense of being wronged, as a Jew, he was also implicitly appealing to God on the basis that these adversaries had acted wrongly towards God by not showing hesed.
To a Jew, any action done that disturbed shalom was an action done against God. If God desires for us to live in shalom with one another, then any injustice or lack of hesed spits in the face of God’s will and redemptive activity in the world.
So what if prayerfully giving voice to our thirst for vengeance is an act of faith in God’s justice? What if acknowledging that we have these raw emotions of spite and vindictiveness when we experience broken shalom – what if acknowledging these raw emotions rather than hiding them is an act of trust that our God is big enough and gracious enough to handle such raw emotions? As Walter Brueggemann writes: “A God worthy of such prayer cannot be a ‘warm, fuzzy God’ but must be [a God] who is respected and taken seriously as an engaged, moral arbiter on behalf of the vulnerable.” It is David’s capacity to trust such a God that allows him to turn in verse 21 from hate to trust.
Athanasius, an early church father said: “most of Scripture speaks to us; but the Psalms speak for us.” What if Psalm 109 is meant to be a mirror held up to our soul, giving us voice and articulation to the human experience of resentment, anger and vengeance we all have the capacity for? What if the raw emotions we find in Psalm 109, which we usually try to bury deep inside our soul and pretend aren’t there, what if they are not supposed to sit idle in our soul? What if they are meant to drive us to our knees in prayer, asking for God’s justice and redemption in our world? What if these raw emotions of anger and the thirst for vengeance are meant to draw our attention to the redemption and shalom our souls long for?
Psalm 109 gives us the language and the permission to acknowledge the raw emotions in our souls and shows us how to use them as an occasion to pray and even praise God. It’s not as if the Psalms are divided into examples of good prayers and bad prayers. They’re all prayers that arise from the depths of human experience and show us how to respond faithfully to God, no matter what emotion we are feeling. These prayers have been used by Jewish and Christian communities of faith for thousands of years. We can imagine that Psalm 109 took on entirely new meaning for the faithful when they were shipped off to exile, or when Rome destroyed their temple and murdered their friends. We can imagine the community of faith turned to prayers like this one, crying out of their hurt and their rage, longing for God’s justice and redemption.
I want to close with one final word on Psalm 109: if you’ve never felt this way – if you don’t relate well to the raw feelings of resentment, anger and a thirst for vengeance, then maybe this prayer isn’t meant to be prayed for you.
The theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests: “Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community.” Even if we don’t feel particular identification with the experience or emotion in a certain psalm, we can be sure that there is someone else who does have this experience and we can pray this on their behalf. Whenever you come across an imprecatory psalm like this and it doesn’t represent what you’re feeling at the time, what if instead of skipping over it you prayed it on behalf of Jose who was separated from his mother at our nation’s border? What if you prayed it on behalf of Jean, who lost her son to a drunk driver? What if you prayed it on behalf of Fayez, who must endure and fear for his family in the midst of civil war?
Psalms is the prayer book of the entire community of faith, not just you, not just me. When we pray it, let it not only be our prayer, but let us pray it on behalf of those in our community who are suffering the depths of despair, raging against the injustice of the world, and who are longing for God’s justice and judgment. Because one day you may find yourself in a similar experience, and you can take courage knowing that others are praying the Psalms for you.
Psalm 109 reflects the soul’s desire for wholeness and justice. It is not the prayer of nice Christians, but it is the prayer of Christians who are horrified by the injustice, the brokenness, the lack of hesed that they witness in the world and that they themselves contribute to. Psalm 109 is the honest prayer of the soul that has confidence in God’s justice and redemption. Let us not be afraid for this to be our prayer. Amen.