I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the psalms but have always had trouble with the imprecatory psalms. I could never quite understand how God was OK with people calling down curses on their enemies. Or, if he condescended to our weakness in our prayers, how he endorsed it enough to include in revelation.
Psalm 10 helps a little. Rather than cursing his personal enemies, the psalmist is attacking those who attack the poor. They directly hurt those who should be protected, those who have a special claim on God’s people.
The wicked man actively exploits and takes advantage of the vulnerable. He “lurks that he might seize the poor” so we can understand why the Psalmist asks God to “break the arm of the wicked and evildoer, call his wickedness to account until you find none” (v 9; 15).
I’m still not certain how to understand this violent language – and how we can use it. It feels as if it isn’t an option for those of us living after Jesus’ teaching – despite how Jesus attacks the wicked himself (see Mt 23, among other places). This Psalm sets some context for how this language can be legitimate.
Hebrew poetry can do odd things with time. Psalm 9 is no exception – we shuttle between looking back and anticipating and, at least in English, usually remain fuzzy on which direction we are actually facing. Rather than just being sloppy, as would be if I were writing it, here the poet is making a point.
The psalmist says: “I will give thanks … I will recount all of your wonderful deeds” (v1). Similarly, he calls on God to “be gracious … that I may recount all your praises” (vv 13-14). The psalm gives thanks for blessings already provided but it is written so we can’t tell if the blessings are in the past or are still to come. David seems to be giving thanks for things which haven’t happened yet.
Like most of the psalms, this gives us a model for prayer and how to function in the already-not yet (to embrace my reformed roots). We can use a perfected, action-completed, tense to describe God’s future blessings because they are certain. Looking backwards, we must faithfully recall how God has blessed us, especially when it seems far away or implausible.
Time is complicated and the God who created it doesn’t change. That’s why David can speak in the odd language that he does.
Christianity, together with the rest of the monotheistic religions, is often accused of incredible arrogance. How could we assume that a God strong enough to set the universe in motion would care about one small element of his creation?
In this psalm, we see David asking exactly the same question: What is humanity that God should care about us?
Of course, he has no answer.
But David quickly moves into what this special attention from God means. Because of God’s favor we have dominion over the natural world. If the modern era has taught us anything it’s the extent of this control.
The psalm’s focus on God’s majesty contextualizes this. We don’t exercise control over the natural world because we are special but because of God’s blessing.
A focus on God’s majesty is appropriate even when reflecting on what humanity has done with the power that God has given us: riding the subway should be an opportunity to praise God for the work of engineers, just as much as reading a piercing sonnet. God gave people the ability to make amazing things, so we should praise him for his majesty when we are astonished by people just as when we are astonished by nature.
God is big enough that we have trouble with description. Big isn’t even the right way to put it – God is outside of our reality, the ground of all being. Stacking up adjectives doesn’t get us to the truth. We tend to go two one of two extremes:
- We forget that God’s reality is incommensurate with ours because we want to say true things about him.
- We acknowledge that God is so far outside of our reality that we give up trying to speak truth about him at all.
In this Psalm, David threads through these bad options in a theologically classic way – through robust analogy. So we don’t take any one analogy too seriously, he uses three in the course of a brief psalm:
God is a fortress (in v1), a judge (vv3-11), a warrior (vv12-16).
These analogies don’t contradict each other but they expand and limit their meaning. What kind of judge is God? One who attacks the wicked, much expanded from our modern judge. But if God is described as both a place and a person, then he can’t be much of a person. Or much of a place. But something else entirely.
Fantastically, all of this theological work happens in a song designed to comfort in the middle of oppression. We’re re-educated but the point is to rescue us from despair because God is on our side.
So far in the psalter, it’s all about the law: meditating on it and following it to preserve your life.
In Psalm 6, we get a taste for what happens when you don’t follow the law. It opens with the psalmist pleading “Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.”
It seems odd to think of God punishing for particular sins the way this implies. This is what disicipline is: a tool to modify behavior.
David’s thinking here, though, may follow from the deeper conception of the law that we have already seen in the psalter. God’s law is the expression of how the world works. Violating the law doesn’t just open yourself up to supernatural punishment but also the natural consequences of your actions just as driving the wrong way down a one-way street might not only get you a ticket but it might also get you in a wreck.
Somehow, that makes the psalm’s denouement that much more astounding. David begged for relief: flooding his bed with tears, drenching his bed with weeping. And God heard, and answered. God turns back David’s enemies, and protects him from the natural result of his folly. That’s how big his faithfulness is: protecting his people from even themselves.
I don’t understand much about prayer. Like poetry, it’s something I’m working on. One thing I do get is that it is rooted in a desperate need to be heard by someone who understands.
In Psalm 5 David opens with that most basic element – “Give ear to my words, O Lord.” Before anything else, we pray because God hears.
As human beings, we are kind of rotten at hearing. I’ve talked where I wasn’t heard and been spoken to as I paid no attention, even in places where everyone was trying hard to be kind and attentive.
God is different, though, as David describes: he is a God of steadfast love who keeps protecting David and scorns the company of the wicked and boastful. This is why David can ask and expect to be heard.
Even though nothing may have changed about David’s immediate situation by the end of the psalm, he has been heard. Because we serve a God who hears (or, as Hagar puts it, the God who sees), we can keep asking, and keep expecting his comfort in a world that doesn’t hear.
If that isn’t enough to keep me in prayer, I don’t know what would be.
I love the psalter’s unconventional logic. In Psalm 4 is a perfect example: “Tremble in your anger, yet from sin depart” (quoted from an old-school metrical version, because songs stay with you).
I am comfortable in a milquetoast Christianity, which tries to avoid anger at all costs. This can keep us complicit in great evil as it did for many during slavery. God is angry at the sin and folly of the world – part of having God’s heart is sharing in that anger.
The latter part of this verse still holds. We are to depart from sin even as we tremble in anger. I don’t know how to do this yet but I think it might come through how we’ve read the theme of the psalter – meditation on God’s law.
By thinking God’s thoughts after him, we can be angry, as the psalm permits, without falling into hate. This isn’t a mechanistic study (although study and grammar are still elements) but rather a moral formation which enables us to feel and react as we ought.
If we aren’t angry with the world, then we aren’t paying attention. If we sin in our anger, we’ve lost the point.