07/14/19 “Praying the Disturbing Psalms”

Psalm 58, Luke 9:51-56

Do you remember that, when we started this series on the Psalms, I gave you an assignment?  The assignment was to read and pray a psalm each day.  If you’ve been doing your homework, you may have prayed a psalm of contentment—one where you could simply immerse yourself in the beautiful words of a prayer of praise for the God of an orderly and dependable world.  Or, you may have found one where you could pray words that match your experiences as you go through a difficult time, or could imagine praying the next time life takes a downward turn.

You may also have come across some that made you uncomfortable, to say the least—ones that speak of violent acts or have gruesome imagery, ones that are more focused on vengeance than grace, ones that express more hatred than love.  These seem very far from what we should be praying, no matter how angry or frustrated we may get.

Take Psalm 58, for example.  As in Psalm 82, which was included in our Call to Worship, the psalmist imagines God as a judge presiding over a heavenly trial. God questions the lower gods, who represent human leaders, and then delivers the verdict.  God says, in what I imagine to be a thundering voice, “Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge people fairly? No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth. The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.”

Then, the psalmist leaves the courtroom drama and cries out to God in prayer, “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.”

Finally, the psalmist speaks to those who suffer with him, “Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away! The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.’”

Can you imagine praying like that about your enemies, however you define them?  Can you imagine asking God to break the teeth in their mouths, or let them be trampled and withered like grass underfoot? Can you imagine praying that they would be like snails dissolving into slime or as lifeless as a stillborn baby? Can you imagine celebrating their downfall by bathing your feet in their blood?

This is pretty rough stuff, and this is not the only place we find this kind of prayer.  There’s Psalm 69: “Let their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.” Psalm 83 (which is especially cringe-worthy as we think of those who are dealing with Hurricane Barry): “Pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane.” Psalm 109: “May the enemy’s days be few, may another seize his position, may his children be orphans, and his wife a widow, may his children wander about and beg, may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.” (And this psalm goes on with ten more verses of curses like these!)

What should we do when we come across psalms like this—psalms whose violent words really should make us very uncomfortable?  After all, we’re followers of the Prince of Peace, the One who said we should not only love our enemies but pray for them.  We’re followers of the One who rebuked his disciples, when they wanted to pray exactly this kind of prayer as revenge on the people of a Samaritan village who rejected Jesus: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Maybe when you came across these prayers, you quickly moved on to another more acceptable psalm.  That’s pretty much the way the Church has dealt with them.  We just ignore them as much as possible. The United Methodist Church, along with other mainline denominations, leaves the most violent psalms and verses out of the psalter in the hymnal.  The schedule of readings in the lectionary also leaves out most of the ones that call for vengeance.  This isn’t just because a bunch of nervous preachers and worship leaders thought it was safer to avoid them.  Some scholars have actually judged these verses to be evil—the work of someone whose temperament would dispose them to pour out wicked words of hate.  Some say that these psalms show the limits of Old Testament faith.

But that’s a dangerous path to walk.  It leads to the idea that the faith we know through Jesus supersedes the faith of the Old Testament.  But Jesus himself said “no” to that idea: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill,” he said.  The faith we know now is built on Jesus’ own religious roots, including the psalms, and we can’t simply ignore them.

Paul reminded Timothy that the sacred writings which Timothy had known from childhood—the Hebrew scriptures—could instruct him for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  Paul continued, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”  To the Romans, Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Our own Articles of Religion affirm that both the Old and New Testaments are to be “received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

So, we can’t just throw out the verses that make us squirm.  When we encounter these violent prayers for vengeance, we need to wrestle with them and figure out how to approach them in a faithful way.  We don’t need to accept and imitate every verse literally, but we can allow them to instruct us.  We can use them to help us think through what our prayers should be now, in light of what has been revealed to us in Jesus.

As we do, we first need to admit that these feelings aren’t foreign to us.  When Peyton was little, a group of girls around her age would all play together in our adjoining yards. Peyton didn’t especially like playing with them, because some of them didn’t treat others very nicely.  But, sometimes they were the only ones around.

One day, I heard angry voices in the yard, and the next thing I knew, Peyton had come inside and was playing a computer game. She was playing a game called “Oregon Trail.” It was a history-based game where you had to successfully lead your wagon full of pioneers across 2000 miles of wilderness from Missouri to Oregon.  You had to choose what time of year to start, how many people and animals to take, what route to use, the amount of supplies they’d need, and so on.  Any miscalculation could result in serious injuries or gruesome deaths for the people you’d chosen to place in your wagon, which translated into losing the game.

I noticed something odd about the choices Peyton was making. I said, “Peyton, if you put that many people in the wagon, they probably won’t all make it.” Without turning around, she said, “I know.”  I said, “If you don’t take more food, they probably won’t have enough for the whole trip.”  “I know.”  “If you take that route, there’s no way they’re going to get to Oregon without getting caught in the mountains in the dead of winter.”  “I know.”  Finally, I asked, “Peyton, why are you setting this up so no one in your wagon can possibly survive?” She looked me in the eye and said, “Look at who’s in the wagon.” Sure enough, each passenger bore the name of one of the girls who had been giving Peyton a hard time that day. Sometimes, we do have a desire for vengeance.

If you or someone you love has been victimized in some way, you may well have had the same desire for revenge that the psalmists describe so graphically.  When we hear of children being abused or neglected, we may wish that those responsible would suffer from the same kind of pain they’ve inflicted. Since it’s pretty well-established that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, what is capital punishment but an expression of our society’s desire for revenge, even if we prefer to call it “justice”? When we’ve been deeply hurt, we may hope that the person who’s hurt us will get their come-uppance.  We may not act on our feelings, or even speak of them, but I think it’s safe to say that at some point in our lives, most of us have had those feelings, or will.  The psalmists were just more outspoken, and maybe more honest, than we are.

But one thing to keep in mind is that, when the psalmists cried out against their enemies, they weren’t complaining about minor, personal slights. They weren’t seeking revenge against the ancient equivalent of a driver who took your parking spot or the person who let their dog dig up your lawn or the kid who shoved your child on the playground.  They were speaking of people who opposed God and God’s kingdom.  “The wicked” were those in positions of leadership and influence who took advantage of the poor, who trampled on the dignity of others, and who played favorites with the rich and powerful.  The crime for which the psalmists desired justice was opposition to God.

Another thing to keep in mind is what the psalmists are actually asking for in their violent prayers. They aren’t asking for the power to take matters into their own hands.  They aren’t asking God to appoint them as vigilantes. They’re asking God to execute justice.  They do it in some pretty graphic terms, but they’re demanding that God rescue the poor, the helpless, the powerless, and the victimized. They’re asking God to ensure that the rich and powerful will do what they’re supposed to do: protect and provide for those God loves and who can’t protect themselves.  They’re asking God to put things and people back into their proper places and right relationships, because that is in the nature of God and God’s true justice.

With those things in mind, we can ask how these psalms can guide our own prayers.  Even if we can’t in good conscience pray them as the psalmists did, they can help teach us how we should pray when we are confronted with conditions that cause us to be that outraged, that appalled, and that angry.

First, they teach us to acknowledge the feelings we are having. Any psychologist will tell you that feelings that go unacknowledged tend to become more powerful, strengthening and expanding their grip on us.  Acknowledging what we’re feeling, even if that includes some pretty ugly desires, is a necessary first step in dealing with them in a healthy way.

Admitting our feelings is not the same as acting on them.  However convinced we are of the wickedness of others, we don’t ask God to give us the means and opportunity to go after them ourselves. We don’t ask God for the power to bomb an abortion clinic or to shoot up a gay bar or set fire to a migrant detention camp if we’ve decided that the people in those places are wicked. And, when someone else does, we don’t celebrate by bathing our feet in the blood of the victims.

Instead, we submit our desire for justice (which if we’re honest, may actually be a desire for vengeance) to God.  We acknowledge God as the only true judge, and we relinquish our desire to take God’s place in the judgment seat. We ask God to execute God’s justice, as it is in God’s nature to judge.

That doesn’t mean that we are completely off the hook when we see injustice occurring, though.  While only God can judge the human heart, we can and should judge and act against actions and institutions that are clearly opposed to God’s will for a just and compassionate world. In our baptismal vows, in addition to repenting of our own sin, we “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”  This means working to change laws and systems and traditions that keep some people living in poverty, fear, isolation, and despair.  We take the anger that fuels a violent prayer and we convert it into the energy we need to create a world that looks more like God’s kingdom.

The best way to figure out how we can use the violent prayers of the psalms is to examine them by the light of the Gospel.  The good news of Jesus Christ is that, by the grace of God, where there is death, there is also the potential for resurrection and life.  So, when we encounter a violent psalm, rather than quickly turning the page, we can begin by asking, “What is happening in the psalmists’ world to cause so much outrage?  Where in our world are similar death-dealing forces at work?  Are workers being defrauded? Are the resources of God’s creation being misused?  Are the needs of the poor and the powerless being disregarded, so that they remain poor and powerless? Are vulnerable people being mistreated—the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the stranger, children, the strangers who are children?”

As we identify the conditions of our world which kill the spirit of love and community, we submit them to God.  But we also take the next step, and ask where resurrection and new life are possible.  We ask what Jesus taught us to do in response to injustice.  We ask God not to empower us for vengeance, but to empower us to act in ways that help bring about life in all its fullness, for all people.  And, as in all our prayers, we submit ourselves to God’s will and care, trusting God to judge the human heart while we work to make the world more like God’s kingdom.

Jesus gave us a pretty good counterbalance for the violent prayers.  He taught us to pray to his Father and our Father, “Your kingdom come—your kingdom of mercy and justice, where the hungry and thirsty are provided for, the naked are clothed, the stranger is welcomed, and the sick and imprisoned cared for. Your will, not ours, be done, on earth as it already is in heaven. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others for their sins against us. Help us resist the temptation to do what is not your will, and the temptation to ignore what is your will. Because, in all things and at all times, the kingdom is yours, not ours; the power is yours, not ours, and the glory is yours, not ours.”

The violent psalms are, without question, uncomfortable to read and impossible for Christians to pray literally and word for word.  But, as Paul said, they are useful for us, for teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness.  They force us to come face-to-face with our own ugly feelings and desires.  They challenge us to identify the needs of our world. And, they awaken us to how we can both leave the judgment of people in God’s hands while using our hands to work for a more just and compassionate world.  As we read and reflect on the violent psalms, we just may find that the ones that make us the most uncomfortable are the ones that can lead us to shalom—to wholeness and peace in our prayers, in our actions, and in our world.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young