Tuesday, October 5, 2010

May his children be wandering beggars

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 44

Read: Psalm 109:1-134:3

Verse that stood out:
May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes - Psalm 109:10

OK, yesterday, I received some great comments about the Psalms. Despite their reputation as a source of inspiration, reading them straight through as we've been doing can leave one with a little disappointment and not a few questions.

My friend Stan put it well:

"I've got to say honestly that reading straight through Psalms (the first half, at least) has been a disappointment. 25% of it is beautiful and inspiring, well worth memorizing. 75% is repetitive doggerel, rehashing the same themes (praise God, God is amazing, God please squash my enemies, how miserable I am). It gives me some sympathy for the Thomas Jefferson approach to scripture."

Here is my response:

Whether we admit it or not, all of us have a canon within the canon even if we don’t actually cut things out like Jefferson. Most of us leave out the majority of the Psalms from day to day use. We have our favorites, and for the most part, those are the only ones we read during devotionals or in worship. Even among our favorite Psalms, we have a tendency to cut out verses that make us squirm. I've read Psalm 139 in many a service, usually without reading vv. 19-22 which don't seem to fit at all with the rest of the poem.

As for the repetitiveness, it's helpful to remember that the Psalms aren’t meant to be read straight through as we’re doing. They really demand a slower reading. That’s not to say some of them won’t still sound atrocious during a more reflective reading. The imprecatory psalms, those that call for vengeance upon enemies, sound incredibly harsh to modern ears. Especially, when we consider Christ’s commands to turn the other cheek and to pray for ones enemies (by which we are pretty sure he doesn’t mean pray for their children to be wandering beggars!).

It helps to remember that these are prayers. Just because we pray something (even in the Bible), doesn't make it something we should pray for or that God will grant. We can at least say, that the Psalmist is bringing his prayers honestly to God and then leaving the working out of those prayers in God's hands. Vengeance, after all, is the LORD's and not ours. That doesn't mean we can't ask the Lord to make a move on our behalf, but we must leave it in God's hands and not take up the task of vengeance on our own.

And while it’s easy to think these prayers should have been more polite, I have to remember that I don’t really live with violent enemies camped outside my door. My prayers might change if I did (even as I still knew I should be trying to love those very same enemies). Also, it helps to remember that the psalmists for the most part, identified God’s kingdom with the welfare of the nation of Israel. Therefore, if the nation was threatened, if God’s people were threatened, God’s very reputation was at stake. These are prayers that, however strangely, attempt to defend God’s honor.

Does that mean we should pray imprecatory prayers? Prayers that curse? Probably not. Especially not in the fashion of these Psalms. We should remember, thought, that Jesus does his own share of cursing others – usually the self-righteous, rich folks who oppress the poor (not to mention one poor fig tree). Like Jesus, we should have a healthy anger towards injustice, towards hatred, towards evil. That anger might cause us to pray some fairly impolite prayers. In light of Jesus’ life and ministry, however, we must take our angry prayers in a new direction. We can’t pray just for our enemies to be defeated, we must also pray for their salvation.

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