If you're Christian, you probably love the Book of Psalms. Even if you haven't read it, chances are you sing from it all the time. Evangelicals were taught to pine after God as a deer longs for running waters. Catholics grew up saying, "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His mercy endures forever," every time they came back safely from a trip. Regardless of your denomination, you're probably familiar with, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." All of these songs and prayers have their origins as psalms. Yet few modern preachers or choir directors want to address the so-called maledictory psalms, which call down God's curses on his enemies. Some choose to ignore them altogether. But the maledictory psalms have spiritual value and should be both remembered and prayed regularly.
Traditionally attributed to David (and a few others), the 150 Psalms have provided fodder for prayer for more than 2,000 years. Just like apps for an iPhone, there is a psalm for every occasion. Grateful? Try: "Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights" (Psalm 148:1). Pleasantly surprised by good news? You might pray: "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy" (Psalm 126:1). Feeling overwhelmed? The Psalmist felt it before you: "Have mercy on me, O God, for my enemies are hounding me; all day long they assault and oppress me" (Psalm 56:1).
Many Christian denominations incorporate recitation of psalms in their ordinary prayer regimens. The Book of Common Prayer -- used in the Episcopal Church -- invites devotees to pray psalms twice a day so they will get through all 150 every 30 days. The Liturgy of the Hours -- used by Roman Catholics -- has a 28 day cycle, but some feast days have their own sets of psalms, resulting in a great deal of skipping around. Praying psalms made its way into low-church Protestantism as well. Barely 20 years after their arrival in America, the Puritan Pilgrims printed the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in North America.
Praying psalms regularly makes scriptural meditation familiar and accessible: the imagery is vivid and they cover the whole spectrum of human emotion. You always discover something new.
If you're praying psalms, however, you'll inevitably run into the maledictory psalms. These psalms curse the so-called enemies of God and ask God to punish them. Some glorify violence, even against the innocent. They were usually written by desperate people in desperate times. For example, one psalm, probably written during the Babylonian exile, ends with: "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock" (Psalm 137:9).
Most of the time, Christians have only a passing familiarity with the Book of Psalms and may find the maledictory psalms scandalous, even challenging to their faith. One option is to skip them. I once found myself in a church in which the choir was singing Psalm 68. They were happy to call God the father of orphans and defender of widows (verse 5), but didn't mention the part where God will dip the tongues of dogs in the blood of their slaughtered masters (verse 23). It's a nice, clean way to deal with the problem.
But this solution presents more problems than it resolves. If the Bible is inspired, we should deal with even the difficult passages. More importantly, if we only pray with the images of God we're comfortable with, we'll find ourselves creating God in our image rather than letting him re-make us in his.
A more viable solution is to adopt a slightly different way of reading the psalms. Rather than seeing them as how God relates to us, we should view them as symbols of how we relate to God. Sometimes we are filled with indignation, righteous or otherwise. When we see injustice, we are angry and want to it to change. In such circumstances, praying the maledictory psalms may be appropriate.
For example, many of us have had a friend or relative in an abusive relationship. Think about the moment we found out about the abuse. Someone mistreated our baby sister or cousin or friend. Were we not filled with anger, shame, and rage? But then we remember: Jesus demands that we pray for our enemies, but we cannot. The only prayer we can muster might go something along the lines of: "Declare them guilty, O God; let them fall because of their schemes. Because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you" (Psalm 5:11-12).
When we do that, we are praying for our enemies. I want to emphasize: the impulse to hate isn't good, and hatred itself is a sin. However, the maledictory psalms provide the opportunity to pray through the anger and hatred we feel when we or our loved ones are wronged. We shouldn't stop with the maledictory psalms. But for those so filled with anger they couldn't otherwise pray, these psalms can be a first stepping stone toward intimacy with God.
For those of us who pray the psalms regularly, the maledictory psalms may serve as a reminder that we are not as holy as we think. When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that sometimes we feel like the Psalmist when he is cursing his enemies. When we read, "God shall crush the heads of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of those who go on still in their wickedness" (Psalm 68:21), it's not such a stretch to mentally picture the heads of those who disagree with us, who we think are making bad decisions, or whom we just flat don't like. In our deepest selves, sometimes we can even enjoy the maledictory psalms. This reminder of our imperfection is essential. Otherwise we can get lost in our own pride in how well (or at least how often) we pray. The maledictory psalms help us remember just how much progress we have to make in our own spiritual lives, and enable us to say with more sincerity: "Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are racked" (Psalm 6:2).
The maledictory psalms are jarring and disturbing. And that's a good thing. They give those who cannot relate to God a first step toward a relationship. For those who already have a relationship, they help prevent complacency. While they may be difficult to understand, they are a sign of a God who can turn even anger and hatred into deepening love.
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