A Pepper Grinder Post

Kicking You When You're Down

What I love about the Psalms is that, no matter what emotional state you are in, you can find a Psalm that expresses it, and probably with even more intensity than you are feeling it. While some books of the Bible seem quite analytical, I would challenge anyone to read the book of Psalms and come away with the opinion that God doesn't care about emotions.

Today, I'm going to look at part of a psalm that is of a type that often makes Christians uncomfortable--the kind scholars refer to as imprecatory psalms. Basically, an imprecatory psalm is one where the writer asks God to get even with his enemies. There are good reasons for us to feel uncomfortable about this. Jesus commands us to bless the people who curse us, and it is hard to see how this fits in with asking God to punish and never forgive your enemies.

hostile swan

On the other hand, I would like to point out a few things.

  1. Jesus and the New Testament writers sometimes sounded pretty angry with people (e.g. Jesus's many harsh rebukes of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law; Paul's statement that he wished people pushing Gentiles to be circumcised would emasculate themselves, in Galatians 5:12).
  2. In Paul's quotation of Proverbs 25:22 (in Romans 12:20), he says, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.'" I once heard someone argue that having burning coals heaped on your head was actually a good thing (people needed the coals to start their own fires at home, and the way people carried most things in that culture was on their heads). The big problem I have with this idea is that, especially the way it is phrased in Romans, it is clear that by doing good to your enemy, you are putting a big stick in God's hands. This is NOT a passage about how we should be so good and sweet that we just long to make our enemies happy. This is telling us to DO good to our enemies and leave the revenge to God! It is very possible that this is exactly what Jesus meant when he told us to bless our enemies, since blessing in the Bible could just as easily be a tangible act as a spiritual pronouncement.
  3. The writer of this psalm was not saying that he was going to grab his assault rifle and get even with those rotten enemies. He was expressing his deepest emotions to God, and asking God to settle the score with people who had acted in a really scummy way. If you have never had the desire to see someone suffer because of the way they treated you, then you are a better man/woman than I, or else you are very good at hiding negative emotions from yourself. The Bible doesn't take the prissy approach of telling us that we shouldn't feel mad at our enemies. Instead, it gives us the model of pouring out our raw anger to God, but leaving it to him to take the appropriate action.

The verse I want to focus on today is in Psalm 69. I'm going to quote a good chunk of the psalm since this is the logical section that our verse is part of. Here is my translation of Psalm 69:19-28 with verse 26 in bold:

You know the abuse, shame, and dishonor I've received.
You know all about my enemies.
Abuse has broken my heart, and I am sick.
I wait for sympathy, and there is none;
for compassion,
but none is to be found.
They give me poison for food and vinegar to drink.
Let their table become a trap for them, and a snare for their friends.
May they become blind, and let their hips shake uncontrollably.
Pour out your indignation on them,
and let your burning anger overtake them.
Let their camp be deserted;
may no one live in their tents.
Because they persecute those you have wounded,
and tell stories about the pain of those pierced by you,

charge them with crime upon crime,
and don't let them come to your righteousness.
May they be erased from the Book of Life,
and not written down with the righteous.

Here is a man who is being kicked when he is down. He is sick and broken-hearted, and his enemies just keep doing horrible things to him. We need to remember that this is poetry. That means that these people are probably not literally sticking cyanide in the psalmist's oatmeal, or swapping his wine for a glass of cider vinegar. What they are doing is working to make the psalmist's life as miserable as possible, and the psalmist is pouring out to God exactly how he feels about it. He is angry, and he doesn't want these enemies to go unpunished.

That's the gist, but let's zero in on verse 26 (the one in bold). One of the things that I thought was very interesting was who had caused the psalmist's pain. It was God. The enemies have made things worse, but there is absolutely NO doubt that the one who wounded and pierced the psalmist was God himself.

policemanWe often like to paint God as the good cop. According to that mistaken picture, he is just sitting around in Heaven, doing his best to make our lives happy, but we keep disobeying him and making ourselves miserable. Even if we are attacked, we know God didn't do it because God never does anything to make us unhappy. I'm certainly not saying that we never shoot ourselves in the feet, but I think it is impossible to read the Bible with an open mind and not see that people who are sincerely following and obeying God will still often suffer. Even though the writer of Psalm 69 may have done something to deserve punishment (he mentions his guilt in verse 5), there are clearly cases in the Bible (Job, Daniel, Jesus, and the early disciples come to mind) where God brings people into intense suffering who have done nothing to deserve it.

"Ah," you might say. "God doesn't cause their suffering. He allows it." This argument can get into a lot of theological hair splitting, which I'd like to avoid, but I do want to point out just a few things in response.

  1. Is there any real difference, for an all-powerful, all-knowing being, between causing and allowing something? If I knew for a fact that my son would get killed if he went to a certain place at a certain time, and it was completely in my power to stop him, and I did NOT stop him, wouldn't I bear responsibility for his death?
  2. In Job, God allows Satan to bring horrible suffering on Job, at Satan's request. This seems like a classic example of God allowing, rather than causing, suffering. And yet, in Job 2:3, God says to Satan, "you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason." (NIV) He did not say that Satan had incited God to ALLOW Satan to ruin Job. God took full responsibility for the misery that came on Job. And at the end of the book, God doesn't come to Job and explain that Satan did all those nasty things to Job, and God would never have done something so mean.
  3. In the verse we're studying, the Hebrew grammar is such that the fact that God did the wounding is strongly emphasized. Basically, it's as if the verse said, "because they persecute those YOU have wounded."

And what about those words I've translated as "wounded" and "pierced"? Am I being a little over-the-top in my translation? Are these more like love taps? Absolutely not. The word translated as "wounded" is often translated as "strike" or "kill" ("smite" if you're a King James type). "Pierced" most often describes being stabbed, as with a sword. These are violent words. The psalmist is not talking here about God's gentle rebukes.

A more practical question is whether we are we doing what it talks about in Psalm 69:26. Maybe we aren't exactly persecuting people who are wounded, but what about when we share prayer requests about people in hard times--are we telling stories about them? Probably not. It became clear when studying this passage that what the psalmist's enemies were doing went far beyond being a little gossipy. These enemies were maliciously and intentionally trying to increase the pain of the hurting person. This is why the cries for God's vengeance are so extreme.

On the other hand, I do think that we need to look very carefully at how we react to hurting people. I think that we have a natural tendency to want to keep a certain amount of distance from people in pain. Maybe we're afraid that their troubles might be contagious, or maybe it's just that, in our fun-addicted culture, we don't want to be too close to people who might "bring us down." Whatever the case, I believe that while Christians often have an initial impulse to reach out compassionately to a hurting person, there is frequently an expectation that the sufferer will soon "get over it." All too often, people who continue to feel sad and have the bad judgment to show it will find themselves more and more isolated.

I think there is even a subtle tendency for a Job's-friends attitude to creep in, where we start to think the person in pain must have done something to bring it on themselves. After all, if he or she is suffering like this without having done anything worse than anybody else, couldn't the same thing happen to us? We desperately want to think that what happened to the sad person next to us could not happen to us.

snowy yardHow should we respond to a person in pain? Should we try to cheer them up? Biblically, I would say that this should not be the first step. Even Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe, when encountering the tomb of Lazarus, wept. That was the first thing he did. It was probably not just a tear running down the cheek, Hollywood style, because, in a culture where mourning was conducted loudly and publicly, Jesus's behavior at the tomb prompted others to say, "See how he loved him!" (John 11:36, NIV) It was only after this that Jesus actually stepped in and took away the cause of the pain.

For us, there may be many times that we will not be able to do much to erase the pain. Certainly we should be open to being used to comfort the sorrowing person, but the first step should be to "mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15, NIV) I also think that, for people who have suffered greatly, we need to be greatly patient. We are a culture that is uncomfortable with grief, and so we have a strong tendency to try to hurry people out of it. Sadly, what we are often doing is encouraging people to bottle up their sadness inside them and put on a cheerful exterior face, or else just to withdraw.

And what if we are the wounded? Here, the message of this psalm is crystal clear. Cry out to God. Don't pray some pious, sanitized prayer. Give him your strongest, rawest emotions. He won't be surprised, and he won't turn away in revulsion. He loves you.


*Photo Credits: Swan by , policeman from