Those Violent Verses in Psalm 139

Sermon for Pentecost 7             July 19, 2020

images-1I was all primed to talk about the three parables in our gospel reading today. But for some reason, the psalm kept calling to me. That’s not too surprising; it is one of my favorite psalms. Still, every time I started to think about the parables, I got stuck. Or rather, my head was engaged, but my heart wasn’t in it. Psalm 139 beckoned. Don’t get me wrong; the parables are super important for understanding what Jesus was trying to convey to us about living in the realm of God and how we, as the church, convey that to our community and world. But that sermon will have to wait for another day. Today, I’m drawn to this heart-felt expression by the psalmist; and I’m thinking maybe some of you might be, too.

Generally speaking, the Psalms address two important aspects of human life:

  • our deep reluctance to let go of a world that no longer exists, and
  • our resilient capacity to embrace a new world coming into being.

In his book Praying the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that as human beings we regularly find ourselves in one of these three places:

  • a place of orientation, where everything makes sense in our lives
  • a place of disorientation, where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit
  • a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit, we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives and about God.

Obviously, we prefer to be in a place of orientation. But if we didn’t know it before, we certainly do now: human experience includes times of dislocation and disorientation. And one of the functions of the Psalms is to “tell it like it is,” so we can embrace these situations as the reality in which we live. This applies to both individuals and communities. There’s no denial or self-deception in the Psalms – especially as they express things like the feeling of being down in “the pit,” hatred of enemies, questioning God, its poignant yearning for older, better times.

But they perform another function as well. The language of the psalms does more than just help us recognize and embrace our real situations. In dramatic ways, they can alsoScream!_corkscrew evoke new realities that didn’t exist before and help us form or re-form (re-orient) life in new ways. Brueggemann’s point was that there are psalms that address each of these states of being.  But I wondered: what happens when orientation, disorientation, and reorientation are all happening at once? I mean, isn’t this the rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on this year?

We’re trying to adjust to a “new normal,” but we don’t even know what that is or if it’s going to change again tomorrow. We long for days past when words like pandemic and social distancing were foreign to our ears and masks were only about Halloween. One theme I hear consistently from people is that of experiencing anxiety, depression, or fatigue one day, and acceptance and resilience the next. Some have added stressors of financial insecurity, worries about jobs and schools – but despite our different circumstances, the fact is that our common plight is disorientation.

So, for some reason, in the midst of the roller coaster ride, this psalm spoke to me. Although I have to tell you that the lectionary didn’t include the entire psalm. It omitted verses 13-22 – which is fairly common. Ending with “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” emphasizes the sense of wonder and happiness at being so completely known by God.

I love this part. It’s such an antidote to all the negative messages we get from others or from ourselves. To be so fully known, so fully understood is a gift so many long for and never receive. Just the other night, I was watching a Netflix series about a couple who had lost a child. And like so many in that terrible situation, found themselves at odds with one another. At one point, the husband says that he understands his wife and she exclaims that he has never known her at all.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario. We’re each human, dealing with each of our family histories, life experiences, and other contributors to our psyches. Under stress, our differences are exacerbated. How wonderful, then, to learn that there is One who really does get us – each of us, in all our weirdness and wonderfulness, sinfulness and saintliness. It’s a message I believe cannot be understated. It’s the picture of the ultimate experience of orientation – being grounded, feeling safe and secure.

But wait, there’s more!
imagesBut there is more to the psalm. We begin to get some hints of disorientation in the question the psalmist asks of God: “where can I go to get away from your spirit; where can I flee from your presence? You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.” This sounds a bit ominous, as if perhaps he’s feeling a bit too known by God, perhaps there are things he doesn’t want God to know, wants to keep hidden and secret. If we look inside our own hearts, might we not find those kinds of things, too? Maybe we don’t even want to admit them to ourselves, certainly not to our friends or family members. Depending on what it is, if it’s based on guilt or shame, maybe we don’t always want to be fully known to God. The realization that there’s nowhere to hide could feel quite threatening.

And then there are “those verses”
Now we come to the part of this psalm that is almost never included in a church reading and you can understand why:

shutterstock_141004450

If only, God, you would kill the wicked! If only murderers would get away from me – the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes; the people who are your enemies, who use your name as if it were of no significance.

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too.

Talk about disorientation! This is not how we would ever teach anyone to talk to God. Yet here it is, right there in the Bible. And it’s not the only place either. This kind of psalm is called an imprecatory psalm, an imprecation being a curse that invokes misfortune upon someone. Imprecatory psalms are ones that call down judgment, anger, calamity, and destruction on God’s enemies.

There are imprecatory words throughout the Bible, not just in the psalms. So as much as we’d like to dismiss them, there they are. So, how are we going to fit them into our understanding of God and humanity’s relationship with God?

They do sound awful read in church. Asking God to act in vengeance doesn’t fit with our idea of a Sunday morning worship experience. We want church to be uplifting, full of praise – and the good kind of prayers.

But then again, what about those times when the ways of the world intrude upon our church, like a persistent, unwelcome visitor – ringing the doorbell over and over, knocking urgently on the door, peeking in through the windows – demanding to get in? And what if that world is screaming in dissonance with the world that our churches are trying to create?

What if a church member has been attacked, fallen victim to a scam, been abused by a nursing home caregiver, been cheated out of their pension, lost a child to a drunk driver, been betrayed by a trusted friend? What if someone in our church is a victim of a hate crimes? How do we respond to the intrusion of an unjust world into our community?

There’s a story of a Carmelite convent in Dachau, Germany, which is an important stop for pilgrims traveling the paths of the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. In 1965, the nuns were given permission to stop praying the daily prayers of the church in Latin. But after a trial period of reading the Psalms in German, they were tempted to return to Latin. The switch, which had been made for the sake of the tourists, brought serious problems because of the  imprecatory psalms, and the cursing passages in a number of other psalms. The use of the Latin had at least covered up the difficulties of the psalms as prayer.

While I can certainly understand their dilemma, there’s another point of view that says we should find a way to make peace with these psalms. After all, what they reveal is as much a part of our human makeup as are compassion and other characteristics we’re much more comfortable claiming.

What if we have been subjected to atrocities that simply do not allow praise and worship? What then? What did and do the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants feel? What did and do the victims of slavery in America and their descendants feel? What about parents and children in Darfur and Syria and other areas of unrest in our world? How do the victims of violent crimes, hate crimes, and fraud feel? And what about children who are victims of sexual and other types of abuse? The imprecatory psalms remind us of the basic human desire for revenge when we or those we love have been wronged. Such words in the biblical text indicate to us that God does not ask us to suppress those emotions but rather to speak about them in plain and heartfelt terms. In speaking out, we give voice to the pain, the feelings of helplessness, and the burning anger.

I realized that these verses were actually what drew me to Psalm 139 this time. Well, that was a little disconcerting, so I dug a little deeper into the nature of  imprecatory psalms. And I found there are three characteristics that helped make some sense of them.

For one, the whole book of Psalms is filled with references to “the enemy” and “the oppressor.” That was because the life of the people of Israel was an ongoing battle against enemies. The people who prayed the psalms felt surrounded, threatened, and engaged in battle by a gigantic army of oppressors. Most of these psalms are communal – expressing the voice of the gathered community of faith – not expressing the voice of one individual.

Secondly, the cries for vengeance in the psalms are not about conflicts that could be resolved by generosity on the part of the ones praying. Those who pray these psalms are shouting out their suffering because of the overwhelming injustices and abject indifferences of their foes, their enemies.

Thirdly, the psalmists cry out to God in the midst of an unjust world. They call on God to mete out punishment, to “make things right” in the face of seemingly hopeless wrong. They are not cries from communities and individuals for permission to carry out their own retributive acts for the wrongs done to them.

Fix this, God, now!
These psalms were not written out of vindictiveness or a need for personal vengeance. Instead, they are prayers that keep God’s justice, sovereignty, and protection in mind. They’re a complaint that makes the loud insistence to God that:

shutterstock_1494985877* things are not right in the present arrangement.

* they need not stay this way and can be changed.

* the psalmist will not accept this way; the present      arrangement is intolerable.

* it’s God’s obligation to change things.

Well, I can relate to that. Things are not right in our present arrangement. People are getting sick and too many are dying. Black and brown communities are taking a harder hit and social safety nets are being torn to shreds. Basic issues of public health and safety have been turned into partisan wedge issues and causes of violence. Willful ignorance in some parts of the country is endangering those in other areas.

So, yes, I appreciate the permission by the psalmists to express my fear, anxiety, and anger – our extreme disorientation. Even the rants that I direct some days at TV news programs – expressions that I’m not proud of and wouldn’t want anyone to hear (I feel God’s hand on my back!) are OK. I am known in all of my human emotional self – and still loved.

And no, I do not recommend a steady diet of imprecatory prayer. What I do pray is that we accept ourselves and one another in the midst of our disorientation – where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit – and that we will have the courage, creativity, and resilience to embrace the new thing that will be born,  a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives.  Gratitude for God’s extravagant love for each and every person, gratitude for being so fully known, so fully loved, and so fully forgiven, gratitude for the vision of a new day when all will fly on the wings of dawn, with God’s hand to guide us; with God’s strong hand to hold us tight!

Amen

 

PSALM 139 (Common English Bible)

O God, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue that you
don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest
only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful – I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
when I was being put together in a secret place,
when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,
and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
before any one of them had yet happened
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.

If only, God, you would kill the wicked!
If only murderers would get away from me—
the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes;
the people who are your enemies,
who use your name as if it were of no significance.[
Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
Don’t I despise those who attack you?
Yes, I hate them—through and through!
They’ve become my enemies too. 

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts!
Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,
then lead me on the eternal path!

 

 

 

Published by

smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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