Here a quick link to the Thyatira Psalter Project
. We would love to have you participate!
© Stacey Steck
O Psalm 109, O “song of hate,” O song of vengeance. Psalm 109, the infamous imprecatory Psalm, the Psalm whose superscription, it’s title, should be that old children’s taunt: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” You fans of the Big Bang Theory TV show may remember Sheldon’s version of this childhood comeback to insults: “I'm polymerized tree sap and you’re an inorganic adhesive, so whatever verbal projectile you launch in my direction is reflected off of me, returns on its original trajectory and adheres to you.” In Biblical terms, it is expressed as, “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life.” No matter how you say it, there’s some real animosity going on, and the Psalmist isn’t pulling any punches.
This is one of those brutally honest psalms, comparable perhaps to Psalm 137’s desire to take the children of the hated Babylonians and dash their heads against the rocks. The language is harsh, the accusations severe, the proposed remedy extreme, a sort of Old Testament version of “May he rot in hell.” May he be found guilty, may his days be few, may his wife become an early widow and may his children young orphans begging in the street. May he go bankrupt, be miserable, and wind up forgotten in the mists of time. Feel vindictive much there, Mr. Psalmist? There has obviously been a conflict. Wicked and deceitful mouths have slandered our hero, and a case is going to court to press charges. God is invoked to make sure justice is done against these treacherous conspirators. It’s all a big, angry mess.
Before I say more, let me tell you about the one great controversy about Psalm 109. In verse six, the text switches from the third person plural “they” to the third person singular, “he.” This has led some translators, including those who authorized the translation we use here in church, to put these super harsh words in somebody else’s mouth, namely, the people who are persecuting the writer. So, option A is the Psalmist talking about all his enemies as if they were one, and wishing terrible things on them, and option B is that these terrible things are being said about the Psalmist. Either way, it is verse 20 reveals that the truth and the heart of the matter, that the Psalmist desires for his enemies what either they have said about him, or what he says about them. “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life.” The desire for vengeance is undeniable.
Especially if this is written by David, it is not that the Psalmist cannot practice the vengeance that he expresses. David was the King, and a pretty powerful one, by all accounts, powerful enough to have Uriah killed to cover his tracks with Bathsheba. Tyrants stay in power by making sure their enemies meet the fate of Psalm 109. Think about the regular reports out of North Korea that detail the disappearance of supposedly disloyal members of Kim Jong Un’s own family. And the lack of power does not always prevent people from trying to take justice into their own hands when they feel aggrieved. Think of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, for example, a man with a laundry list of grievances, or the Unibomber and his manifesto against technology, both of whom ruined countless lives, running around with a version of Psalm 109 in their heads. In a sense, our whole nation, even before recent events, has something of a Psalm 109 mindset. You see it reflected in the embrace of the death penalty, and “three strikes and you’re out laws,” and “Stand your ground” laws, and just a general “eye for eye” mentality when it comes to what we think our enemies deserve. So maybe it’s just me, but the tone of Psalm 109 seems to strike a little too close to home in these polarized times, seems particularly raw and fresh in light of the social and political discourse we are subject to every day. It’s like a feud between Hatfields and McCoys, a political roll in the mud, Alexander Hamilton facing down Aaron Burr in a duel, or, dare I say, the 140 character Internet bickering that passes for political discourse these days. The psalm of hate reverberates through the centuries, down to our own days. Well, at least the first nineteen verses.
You see, it’s verse twenty that really must matter, verse 20 that is vitriol’s pause button, the moment you come to your senses and you don’t mail that hate-filled letter you wrote to your boss, but decide to sleep on it overnight and realize you will only be throwing gas on the fire. Verse 20 is that God-given moment where the Psalmist may indeed express that wish that all those terrible things happen, but also turns it all over to God to sort out. “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak against my life. But you, O Lord my God, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me.” The Psalmist steps back from the precipice of retribution, and lets God handle things. “Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love. Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it.” The words of the psalm seem to mirror our experience, don’t they? We get all angry at someone, want revenge, or at least what we think is justice, but then we recognize that discretion is the better part of valor, put our trust in God’s infinite wisdom and divine justice, and walk ourselves back from the edge of actions we would regret. Well, most of the time. And when we don’t follow that pattern, the results usually speak for themselves, and we get what we deserve more often than our enemies get what’s coming to them.
Look, it’s OK to express rage, and seek divine assistance, but it is not OK to act as judge, jury, and executioner. We sometimes are on the receiving end of injustice, subject to outcomes that outrage us, fed up with foolishness, stuck behind someone driving under the speed limit in the passing lane. But these circumstances do not give us license to take matters into our own hands to sort them out. If it sounds like I might be referring to last week’s events at the Capital, I am, but I am also referring to the daily aggravations and inconveniences that push our buttons, the ones that cause us to act towards our spouses and children in ways that only make it harder to find peace the next time. No matter what we may think about the outcome of the recent election, or any election, or any decision we don’t agree with, no matter what side of the debate we may be on, it is always dangerous to try to play God in response. It’s even a risk to simply ascribe God’s favor to our position. Let’s not delude ourselves. No political platform comes close to God’s, and none of us is righteous enough to claim to know the perfect will of God. So let us cling to the wise words of that old saying that advises us to make it our business to make sure we are on God’s side, rather than cling to the idea that God is on our side.
In our rage, it’s easy to become blind to what ultimately matters. Living through the events of the early years of World War 2, the Italian filmmaker Alberto Lattuada brought this harsh, but illuminating critique: “The absence of love brought many tragedies that might have been averted. Instead of the golden rain of love, a black cloak of indifference fell upon the people. And thus people have lost the eyes of love and can no longer see clearly…Here are the origins of the disintegration of all values and the destruction and sterilization of conscience.” How do we avoid finding ourselves with “the absence of love” which brings many tragedies? How do we shed the black cloak of indifference and enjoy the golden rain of love?
Let me suggest that a good place to begin is in reading the fine print of Scripture, like the three little words in verse 20 of Psalm 109 that matter the most: “from the Lord.” It’s easy to miss them after the nineteen and a half thunderous verses which precede them, and the “poor old me” expressions that follow them, but they are the theological heart of this honest expression of legitimate feelings. Sometimes you really have to read your Bible to know what’s in there. That’s why I am excited to invite you to participate in the Thyatira Psalter Project
which allows you to really pay attention to every word on the page. Before I say more on that, let me tell you something about the way our Jewish brothers and sisters love their Scriptures.
In the more mystical parts of Judaism, the faithful believe that it is not just the words on the page that mean something, but where the words are located on the page, and how much space there is between the words, how thick the letters are written, and so on. To them, what’s on the page really, really matters. The Torah scrolls that are used in most synagogues for worship are actually handwritten in Israel, often on animal skin just like in the days before the invention or paper. That’s why the Rabbis don’t lick their fingers to turn the page. In fact, they never even touch to pages with the fingers because they are so valuable, so easy to damage, and so difficult to replace. Each scroll takes months to write. Instead they use a stick with a little wood or metal finger on the end to keep track of where they are reading. Now, you might say that these Jews have gone a little too far, that such reverence for the medium obscures the message. And maybe you’d be right. But you have to admire the love they have for the words of God, and the way they do not treat it casually, as if it were just another book, but reverently, as if God were speaking to them even in the spaces between the words.
To copy Scripture faithfully, even if you are typing it, but even more so if you are handwriting it, takes enormous concentration. Imagine if you were the one responsible for transmitting the word of God, for making sure that the three most important words of Psalm 109, “from the Lord,” were there for all to see, and that you lost your concentration for a moment, and you left them out. Where would the world be then? With “an absence of love,” that’s where. Wearing “a black cloak of indifference.” If we really want to be faithful to the God who can handle all this stuff we feel so passionately, we need to know what the Bible says about that God, in every word, every punctuation mark, every space. And the best way I know to get that familiar with the Bible is to write it down, line by line, letter by letter.
There are 150 psalms in the Bible, some angry ones like Psalm 109 and some lovely ones like 133. There are long ones like Psalm 119 and short ones like Psalm 117. There are famous ones like Psalm 23 and Psalm 51, and infamous ones like Psalm 137. There are memorable psalms and forgettable psalms, but they are all important psalms because they speak the truth about our human condition, and the relationship God has with this imperfect people. Each one of them has something to say to not only a world sometimes bent on vengeance, but also to you in whatever you are going through. There are 150 psalms in the Bible and 214 members of Thyatira. May each of us find the psalm to which God is calling us, seek out the words that really matter, and let them bring down the golden rain of love. Amen.