Don’t you love Psalm 139? Here is one my favorite sections:
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you….
…. 19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
Wait – what?!?!
We’ve all been there. We find ourselves reading aloud through Psalm 139, perhaps in a corporate worship service, small group gathering, or a time of personal meditation and prayer, and when we get to verse 19 we do a double take. Sometimes we’re leading a responsive reading of Psalm 139, and all of a sudden it comes time for those gathered to read aloud verse 19 and they look at one another awkwardly as the Psalm shifts from “I am still with you…” to “O that you would kill the wicked, O God.” And it gets so much better! Don’t forget verses 21-22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” It tends to put a damper on what had seemed like such a beautiful piece of poetry, doesn’t it? If you’re like me, you’ve been tempted to rush through the last few verses and almost mutter them under your breath, so as not to ruin the mood. Or maybe you read the first five words of verse 19 and just said, “well that’s enough for now.”
But it does raise a rather troubling question. What are we to do with such disturbing passages of the Psalter? How are we to pray through the “imprecatory psalms” or the so-called “psalms of vengeance”? Those of us who use the lectionary know one suggested answer to this question: Nothing. Oddly, the Revised Common Lectionary excludes most of these types of psalms, including 12, 58, 83, 94, 109, 129 (exceptions include 79 and 137). But I believe there is a way we can make use of these psalms in a way that is not awkward or embarrassing. There is an approach to praying these songs in the community of faith that can deepen our theology and our formation as followers of Jesus Christ. The key lies in Christology. And no one explains why this is the case better than 20th century churchman and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his work, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Bonhoeffer explains:
The Holy Scripture is the Word of God to us. But prayers are the words of men. How do prayers then get into the Bible? Let us make no mistake about it, the Bible is the Word of God even in the Psalms. Then are these prayers to God also God’s own word? That seems rather difficult to understand. We grasp it only when we remember that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, from the word of the Son of God, who lives with us men, to God the Father, who lives in eternity.
Jesus Christ has brought every need, every joy, every gratitude, every hope of men before God. In his mouth the word of man becomes the Word of God, and if we pray his prayer with him, the Word of God becomes once again the word of man. All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray. 1
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus Christ is not only our brother, but that he is our high priest who prays for us. We are therefore always offering prayers to God with, in, and through Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us. Caught up into the presence of the Trinity, we are able to pray “slay the wicked” because ultimately this prayer proceeds from the mouth of Jesus, the only one who can perfectly execute justice and mercy. Thus in one important sense all our prayers are “thy will be done.”
In Bonhoeffer’s words,
Nowhere do those who pray these psalms want to take revenge into their own hands; they leave vengeance to God alone…. Therefore they must abandon all personal thoughts of revenge and must be free from their own thirst for revenge; otherwise vengeance is not seriously left to God.2
And again in his famous work, Life Together:
Can we, then, pray the imprecatory psalms? In so far as we are sinners and express evil thoughts in a prayer of vengeance, we dare not do so. But in so far as Christ is in us, the Christ who took all the vengeance of God upon himself, who met God’s vengeance in our stead, who thus — stricken by the wrath of God — and in no other way could forgive his enemies, who himself suffered the wrath that his enemies might go free — we, too, as member of this Jesus Christ, can pray these psalms, through Jesus Christ, from the heart of Jesus Christ.3
Friends, pray the Psalms with confidence. Pray them aloud and pray them boldly as they take us into the brokenness, disorder, and mess of our humanity. Embrace the dissonance of God’s word when it strikes you as uncomfortable, disagreeable, or flat out wrong. And pray honestly, for we have a high priest who not only knows us better than we know ourselves, but who knows exactly what we need to pray when even when we don’t like the words or when we lack words altogether.
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1970.
2Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005, 174-175.
3Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 1996, 47.