Let his days be few,
and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless,
and his wife become a widow. (Psalm 109:7-8)
The Daily Office lectionary this morning suggests omitting several verses of Psalm 109, one of the psalms known as an “imprecatory” psalm because it asks God to curse one’s enemies.
This particular psalm gained some notoriety earlier this year in an email circulated by Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal asking people to pray for President Obama and citing these verses. What to do with these emotions?
I like this introduction to the Psalms in A New Zealand Prayer Book: He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa: “The wide appeal of the psalms rests on their ability to give words to some of our deepest feelings in the face of life’s experiences. Whether for joy, worship and exaltation, or degradation and rejection, or hope, faith, love, anger, or despair, the psalms contain verses that reflect such moods. In them the various writers expressed to God the thoughts of their heart and spirit. The richness of the psalms still speaks to us and in them we too can find words to match many of our moods and express them before God. In turn God can still address us through these psalms.”
Psalm 109 and others like it “give words to some of our deepest feelings” — feelings of anger and bitterness and the hope that our enemies will suffer — but “in turn God can still address us through these psalms.”
As we pour out our rage, we do so in the light of Christ, who “stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace” — not just us, but our enemies, too.
As we choke out our bitterness, the Word of God “opens our lips” so our mouths can instead “show forth [his] praise.”
Though these imprecatory verses of the Psalter do not express the Christian understanding of God’s relationship with people (which is why they are usually omitted from our public worship), they do still express our very human frustrations and fears.
They may, in fact, help us in our private prayers to more honestly bring all of our concerns to God in order that we might be freed from anger and made whole again.
I have always wanted to hear a sermon on Psalm 137, vv 8-9:
“O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,*
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,*
and dashes them against the rock!
If we never acknowledge the sin within us, we can never recognize it as sin and just might start to think of sin as virtue, as that stupid Mr O’Neal and a few others had done. If we do acknowledge it, and see it and know it and “own” it, then and only then can we be disgusted by it, and sincerely ask God to free us from it.
That’s what those verses, and the ones you cite, are for, as you say: so that we may give voice to what must be voiced, not so that we may take all that on, but so that we may take all that off.
So well said, Scott: “If we do acknowledge it, and see it and know it and ‘own’ it, then and only then can we be disgusted by it, and sincerely ask God to free us from it.”