To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.
How is that for the "drama of humanity?" Quite a prayer, wouldn't you say? Have you ever prayed one like that? You probably have not heard any sermons based on these verses because Psalm 109 is one of the half-dozen called the Imprecatory Psalms(2) (imprecatory means curse). The most famous one is Psalm 137 that laments being in exile in Babylon (Saddam Hussein's modern day Iraq) and ends with a blessing on anyone who would dash the heads of Babylonian infants against rocks. But the granddaddy of them all for sheer creative hatred and revenge is this one: 109.
The Psalmist begins with a lament. He feels betrayed. He says that people have been lying about him...speaking hateful words; he is being attacked without cause. He says, "In return for my friendship, they accuse me." He is feeling ill-used. Have you ever felt that way?
Then he moves to some specific requests. Let the guy go to trial, whoever it is that is doing all these bad things - find him GUILTY! Let him die soon - may his days be few. Let someone else have his property - let his children wander around without a father and his wife without a husband - let his kids starve, let them beg. May the creditors seize all that he has. Let no one extend any kindness to him. In fact, let him and all his family become extinct and fade from memory. My goodness! This is heavy duty stuff. The language would be almost comic were it not for the absolute seriousness of the psalmist's request - let the enemy be completely annihilated!
Have you ever felt like praying such a prayer? I suspect that not a few might, over the years, have been tempted toward, "Dear Lord, please do all that and more to Hitler or Saddam or, more recently, Osama bin Laden, or that nasty neighbor who poisoned my dog." Some have been inclined to wax poetic (in memory of Jonathan Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"): a prayer that the divine wrath will burn against the man (whichever enemy it might be)...that the pit for his destruction would be prepared, and the fire made ready, the furnace hot, the flames raging and blowing ready to receive him - the pit opening its mouth under him as he is dangled above, twisting, slowly, slowly in the wind. The fire gets hotter and hotter, boiling his innards, bursting his eyes, sending steam from his ears and causing him to cry out in anguish. Glory! Isn't that lovely?
Well, of course, it is NOT lovely, not for Christians. We who were nurtured at the feet of Jesus, hearing lessons about loving, not only our neighbor, but even our enemy, recoil at such a prayer.
Should we recoil? My instinct says yes, and some writers say the only reason these prayers are in the Bible is to show us how NOT to pray. But I do not think they should be written off quite so arrogantly. After all, wanting an enemy to boil may be what you really feel, and if prayer is communication, then what kind of communicating can take place if you are not up front about what is in your heart?
Years ago Mark Twain made fun of our tendency to "clean-up" our prayers before we make them. In his book Letters From The Earth, he included a "Letter TO the Earth"(3) from the Office of the Recording Angel, Department of Petitions, and addressed to a Mr. Abner Schofield, a coal dealer from Buffalo.
The angel writes regarding Abner's prayers that, for the week ending January 19th, his petitions would be dealt with as follows: for cold weather to raise the price of hard coal fifteen cents a ton, granted; for an influx of laborers to reduce wages ten percent, granted; for something awful to happen to the man (or the family of the man), who has set up a competing coal yard in Rochester, granted, - two cases of diphtheria (one fatal), one case of scarlet fever to result in imbecility. The angel notes to Abner that this prayer really should have been directed against his competitor's backers in the New York Central Railroad Company, however... Finally, Abner's prayer for some form of violent death to the neighbor who threw the brick at the family cat while it was serenading, the answer was held off for a time. These prayers were Abner Schofield's REAL prayers - "secret supplications of the heart," Twain called them.
But the angel continues and notes that the rest of Abner's petitions for the week fall under the heading of what are termed public prayers, those offered in Prayer Meetings, Sunday School, family worship, and so on. In Abner's case, the angel says "prayer for `weather mercifully tempered to the needs of the poor and the naked,' denied. This was a Prayer Meeting prayer." It conflicts with the REAL prayer for cold weather which was a secret supplication of the heart. The angel writes, "By rigid rule of this office, certain sorts of public prayers...are forbidden to take precedence over secret supplications of the heart." Abner's prayer for better times and plenty of food `for the hard-handed son of toil whose patient and exhausting labors make comfortable the homes and pleasant the ways of the more fortunate, and entitle him to our vigilant and effective protection from the wrongs and injustices which grasping avarice would do him, and to the tenderest offices of our grateful hearts.' Prayer Meeting prayer. Refused. Conflicts with the secret supplication of the heart arranging for the reduction in wages. You get the idea. Even an old curmudgeon like Mark Twain knew that the only prayers that REALLY count are the ones that are REAL to you and me.
"Clean-up" our feelings in our prayers? No. Rather we should try to take all our worst feelings to God. As one scholar has it, "What would be gossip when addressed to anyone else is petition when addressed to God. What is a vengeful curse when spoken about someone [Damn Osama] is a plea of helpless dependence when spoken to God."(4) [Lord, it is up to you to damn this man; you are a just judge.]
But there is still that gnawing sense of discomfort because of those words of Jesus when he was asked specifically for a lesson on how to pray: "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us."(5) How do we put our prayers about boiling Osama or Hitler or the nasty neighbor together with being a faithful disciple? I believe that the two are not only NOT mutually exclusive but, in some cases, are actually inseparable. There are hate-filled times (and for thousands of us following September 11th, this is one of them) when we can only come to the point of moving forward after we have verbalized a prayer like the one the Psalmist prayed: "Oh Lord, wipe that sucker out!" Only after we have given voice to those deep feelings can we experience a catharsis and begin to feel our wounds heal. Only after we have verbalized those mean-spirited secrets of the heart can we hear how strange and hard they sound, and only then will we be able to grow beyond them.
My friend Clint McCann teaches Old Testament at Eden Seminary in St. Louis. He is an expert on the Psalms. In one of his books he writes,
If we are honest, we must conclude that Psalm 109 teaches us about ourselves. We are vengeful creatures. I recently read a book to my five-year-old daughter, and her response illustrates the point. The book uses bears as characters but intends to address children's concerns. In this case, one bear cub had mistreated and excluded another bear cub, whose feelings were hurt. Eventually the perpetrator recognized her misdeeds and changed her ways. The book ends as the offending cub concludes that, "I've learned my lesson." My daughter, however, was not content to let the book end that way. She wanted to continue the story to include an episode where the perpetrator of exclusion would suffer the exclusion she had inflicted upon another. We are vengeful creatures.(6)These cursing Psalms can teach more than simply lessons about ourselves though. They can teach how to deal with evil and injustice, even on such a scale as we witnessed three weeks ago. I should not try to suppress my reaction of horror and outrage at evil. Nor should I, like some sort of Rambo, take justice into my own hands. Rather, I should take those feelings, undisguised, to God. God can handle my rage. I know that my vindictive feelings need God's correction - but only by taking those feelings to God will I have that chance for correction and healing.
Listen to the words of our President:
We Americans, the President said, "have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!"(7)The words of the President. Not President Bush, President Abraham Lincoln. He was proclaiming a National Day of Fasting and Prayer for March 30, 1863. Words as timely today as they were back then.
Some of you have heard me tell of the prayer that my Erin offered one night years ago as she prepared to go to sleep. She and her kindergarten class had been studying the destruction of the rain forest and its potentially disastrous effect on our planet. Her prayer that night (after the obligatory "Now I Lay Me...), was "and Dear Lord, those people who are cutting down all the trees in the rain forest, please kill them." It was a prayer of faith, just as Psalm 109 is a prayer of faith. The words in both cases are those of someone who is utterly convinced that a righteous and holy God should not and will not allow evil to go unchecked.
I do not think God will let the evil of our day go unchecked either. God HAS dealt with Hitler and Stalin; God WILL deal with Osama bin Laden. I have no idea how; I have no idea when. I know that God will. Even now, in God's own way I know
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory hallelujah.(8)
1. Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms In Human Life and Experience, (New York, E. P. Dutton Co., 1903,) p. 1
2. Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109 and 137
3. Mark Twain, Letters From The Earth, (New York: Harper & Row, 1938), pp. 103-107
4. Philip Yancey, "How I Learned To Stop Hating And Start Loving The Psalms," Christianity Today, October 6, 1989, p. 30
5. Luke 11:4
6. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 114
8. Julia Ward Howe, "Battle Hymn of the Republic"