With my mouth I will give thanks to the LORD; I will praise God in the midst of the throng. For God stands at the right hand of the needy to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
Do not be silent, O God of my praise.
This is the last verse and the first verse of our Psalm of the Day, Psalm One-O-Nine. In between these verses, there’s an entire song of anguish— a litany of cursing, and complaining, and pleading for help.
This summer at Church of Peace, we’re making it our business to listen to the Imprecatory Psalms. Each week the scripture reader stands here pronouncing curses in the church, and it’s strange to do this. There’s a reason why you can’t find Psalm One-O-Nine in the back of the hymnal. These songs of charged-up cursing seem to be opposite the tender kindness of Jesus, so the Imprecatory Psalms and the Gospels seem miles apart. So what are we doing here trying to get close to all this cursing…
What if we get this anguish all over us like a smell that gets in your clothes and your hair…
What if the cursing in this Psalm and the praying of Jesus are not quite as far apart as it seems…
We might get there, but to begin with, can we acknowledge that Psalm One-O-Nine is troubling. You might know that Psalm One-O-Nine verse eight made the news a few years ago. At a gathering of the Two Thousand Sixteen Faith and Freedom Coalition, Senator David Perdue invoked this verse in reference to President Obama. It goes, “May his days be few; may another seize his position.” This became known as the “Obama Prayer,” and it was featured on bumper stickers. There was some dust-up about whether “may his days be few” meant we were being asked to pray for Obama’s death, or whether it meant, may his days in office be few. 1https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/david-perdue-death-prayer-controversy/ Not to be outdone, there are bumper stickers invoking this same verse against President Trump.
You can hear how people find this funny, how there’s gleeful satisfaction in finding a Bible verse that legitimizes your opinion, whatever your opinion is. We can also hear how these bumper stickers are not quite the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. These cursing Psalms can be dangerous.
In Psalm One-O-Nine, in between those verses of praise, there are three main sections. First, the singer pronounces a long list of curses: May this person have everything taken. May their family become destitute. May their life be forgotten. Next, the singer pleads with God and expresses her own utter brokenness. Finally, the singer issues her demand —God you had better step in and take action. The song ends like it begins, “Do not be silent, O God of my praise.”
Something that fascinates me about this Psalm is there’s a debate among Bible scholars about two words. Verse six begins with the words “They say” which are missing from the Hebrew version. The editors of our Bible added those words to clarify that the singer is not invoking all these curses against her enemy. Instead, she’s saying to God, “Hey! Do you hear what the people are saying about me? These curses are being directed at me! Do you hear them?!” This is one strong possibility.2See the notes for Psalm 109:6-19. The HarperCollins Study Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1993.
The other is that those words “They say” are legitimately missing because she never sings them. She complains about her accusers in four and five, then launches into her own cursing against her accuser.3Psalms: New Cambridge Bible Commentary edited by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. (kindle edition)
There’s a school of thought that says, whenever you have competing biblical interpretations, the more embarrassing one is probably closer to the truth. In this case, I can’t tell which is more embarrassing for the Psalmist. Is it that she’s saying these terrible things about her accuser, or that her accuser is saying these things about her? Is this a case of “takes one to know one”? This afternoon, I invite you to read through this Psalm twice, once with the “They say” included and once without. It sure seems like it changes the entire meaning of the song… Except.
What if there’s not so much distance between the cursing we hurl at others and the cursing we hear hurled at us… What if we are closer to this song than we realize. Because I’ll tell you. It’s being close to this Psalm that scares me; it’s getting close to this Psalmist that scares me. Why can’t we just have the tender kindness of Jesus, right? And maybe that’s not so far away either —but it’s taken me a while to get to that question.
I will confess to you, the first few times I read this Psalm, something in it was repulsive to me. It’s like the song has a stench to it. The singer is weeping bitterly, and in between sobs, she’s imploring God to bring shame upon her accuser. Maybe the Psalmist is a villain who did something to provoke all these terrible curses! Maybe she’s a helpless victim. Either way, the first time I read this, I really didn’t want to get near her.
The second time I read this, I did not want to get near her. I did not want to touch her hand, or get the snotty tears on my clothes, or the stench in my hair. There is something threatening about somebody else’s pain; something frightening about somebody else’s vulnerability, like what if it gets on me… What if I become this needy and broken? What if I already am…
It might be, I am repulsed by Psalm One-O-Nine because I don’t want to admit that it could be me issuing this prayer. It could be me doubled-over and ugly crying, and it’s entirely humiliating. And nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows, but Jesus.
“Teach us how to pray” the disciples asked him, and Jesus gave them a whole form to follow. Address-Petition-Praise. Here’s the technique, and we keep practicing every week. But if you want to learn how to pray from Jesus, you’ve got to find him in the garden. That night was a hot mess!
Yes, he says to God, “Let it be your will, not mine,” and that is so professional of him. Yes, we have the stained glass window of the scene capturing unspoken, unheard of tranquility. But don’t miss the fact that Jesus was crying — a lot. The disciples couldn’t stay awake. Jesus was being betrayed —all those curses could have been his. One version reports that he was sweating blood into the ground; his tears were soaking the ground. Imagine how he smelled!
What happens when I hear Jesus’ prayer next to Psalm One-O-Nine, is the distance I’m trying to maintain starts to come undone. Now the Psalmist’s litany of cursing, is Jesus’ prayer; which means it is God’s prayer; it could be our prayer. Now maybe instead of feeling repulsed by the ugly crying and cursing, what if I could go up to her, and sit down, and hear her hurt —all of it, and hear how she is telling the truth. What if we learn how to do this from Jesus…
What I can promise you, is there’s no way to get close to someone’s vulnerability, and hear the truth inside their hurt, then not hear the grace on the other side. It is worth getting the snot on your hands and the stench in your hair; there is grace from God in the breath between sobs. There is grace from God in the breath between the horror unfolding in world, but who’s going to show up to hear it if not us…
It’s like this. Some of the most helpful, tender words I’ve ever heard were spoken by someone who works as an EMT. So here’s what happens. There might come a time when you have to call an ambulance to save the life of a person you love, and the team will come, and they might be successful, and the person you love might recover. Later that day, while you’re sitting by their bed in the hospital, it might occur to you, that when the EMTs arrived, they saw everything. They saw the person you love— naked.
Look, if a person’s life is on the line, emergency response teams are simply not concerned about modesty. They will cut off your clothes to save your life. You know from CPR training, if we need to get the defibrillator because someone stopped breathing, we will not think twice about removing their shirt to use it.
So the EMT who I heard was reassuring someone. Please, do not be embarrassed that we found him in the shower. This happens all the time; we are used to it. It is not a big deal at all. What we care about is saving his life.
Hearing him say this made me think, what if we, as Christians, had a similar reaction toward people who are crying? What if we could say, Please. Do not be embarrassed. We have experience sitting with those who are cursing and crying; we have trained for this; it happens all the time. What we care about is why you are hurting. Because once we hear this, we will hear God’s pain too.
God’s heart breaks for those who are weak and brokendown, as though God knows what it is to be weak and brokendown. Get over the snot and the stench, and sit right down next to the pain. There’s no way to do this and not get compassion all over your hands, and not hear mercy singing back from the other side.
This is what Jesus teaches us in the garden. This is the grace of God soaking into your bones like blessing. Amen.