When Psalms Turn Ugly

Pastor Rich Knight

Central Congregational Church

Feb. 18, 2018

Psalm 139

We’re studying the psalms this Lent. Hopefully many of us are reading a psalm a day. I’ll be preaching and teaching on the psalms on Sunday mornings.

The Bible is often filled with surprises for us whenever we dig into it. Sometimes there are pleasant surprises (“Oh, that’s where that came from!” or “Isn’t that beautiful poetry!”), and other times the surprises are not so pleasant. When it comes to the psalms, the surprise one often gets is when psalms turn ugly. Some of them have a nasty edge to them. Some contain expressions of hatred and the desire for vengeance. What do we do with that?

Let’s take a look at Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.



Question: What do you do when you’re angry with someone? I mean really angry! Maybe it’s a neighbor, a co-worker, your boss, your spouse, a child, a fellow parishioner. How do you handle it? What do you do? Do you let ‘em have it? Do you vent on the spot? Do you count to 10? Do you count to 20? Maybe you do what Frank Costanza did on “Seinfeld.” He would yell, “Serenity Now!!!!!”

Sometimes we blow off steam to a third party. Other times we try to ignore it and stuff our feelings inside.

What’s your style? What’s your most common strategy? What are you most likely to do?

David prayed. When he was enraged, he prayed. He told a Friend about it, and as he did he held nothing back. He pulled no punches. He blew off all the steam he had. He completely erupted in the presence of God. He knew God could take it. He knew that God would still accept him. And even more than that, he knew that God would help him.

David prayed, and some of his prayers were nasty.

Psalm 10 – break the arm of the wicked, O God

Psalm 11 – rain coals of fire and brimstone upon them, O God

Psalm 21 – O God, aim at their faces with your bow

Psalm 58 – break the teeth in their mouths, O God

Psalm 109 – May their children be orphans, O God

Psalm 110 –  fill their nations with corpses, O God

You won’t find theses verses on Christian posters, with sunsets in the background. You also won’t find them in the back of hymnals. They’ve been edited out. Psalm 139 is in the back of the Pilgrim Hymnal, but verses 19-22 (“Do I not hate those who hate you?”) have been omitted. That’s understandable, but to me the interesting question is this:

Why did they put these prayers in the Bible?  – and without edits!!!

Why were these psalms canonized and included in our Bible?

Here are some answers:

First, Old Testament scholars point out that the collectors of the psalms were closer to the original events than we are. David and the Israelites were indeed often treated very harshly by their enemies. They had a right to cry out to God and vent their outrage. Imagine some of these vengeful psalms being written by someone taken off into slavery after their city and temple had been destroyed. Rage is understandable. It’s an innate response to an injustice.

Second, the afterlife is not a strong theme in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. You can find it there, but it’s nowhere near as prominent as it is in the New Testament. Therefore, if God is just, then God must execute justice in the here and now. A holy, just God must make things right in this life, now! That’s what they’re crying out for.  “Surely there is a God who judges on earth.” – Psalm 58:11

The commentaries also point out that anger and rage and the desire for revenge are human emotions that are very much still with us. John Calvin once said that, “the psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” These type of psalms reveal the ugly parts of the soul.

They remind us that anger and rage are to be acknowledged and owned, not suppressed or denied.

Have you ever said to someone, “You seem angry. You seem upset.” And they roared back, “I am NOT angry!!!”  “But you’re yelling.”  “I’m NOT YELLING!!!”

The point is, if we’re to control our anger and respond in constructive ways, we first have to be aware of our anger and own it. The goal is to do what David did. Talk it out with God. Honestly and bluntly. And what happens when we do that is the intensity is spent and insights come.

Psalm 139 gives a model for this. The rage is real, but it’s short-lived. And following the rage he asks for insight – “Search me, O God, and see if there is any wicked way in me.”  Prayer can make us teachable. Until we pray we’re often not teachable. But when we pray, honestly & openly, there’s a much better chance that God’s Holy Spirit will redirect us in the ways we should go.

Owning & Yielding.

UCC Professor Walter Bruggeman puts it this way: “What happens in these vengeful prayers is that the psalm writers own their rage and then they yield it to God.”  Owning & yielding.

Notice David doesn’t describe acting on his rage in these psalms – “Let me help you smash them, O God.” He leaves it all to God. Romans 12:19 says, “Never avenge yourselves but leave it to God.” That’s what David is doing in these prayers.

Speaking of the New Testament, I’ll bet many of you have thought about what Jesus said about enemies.  Matthew 5 – “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” And Jesus practiced what he preached, even on the Cross – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The writers of the psalms prayed for their enemies. They just didn’t wish them well! But at least they were bringing up the subject to God. That’s a start.

Illustration. A number of years ago at my first church we went through a time of controversy and division. It happens from time to time in most all organizations. This was my first time going through it, and I found it terribly upsetting. This was also my first experience with a “difficult personality” who insisted on their own way and was never satisfied. It drove many of us crazy for months. So I went to see a pastoral counselor. This was someone with a seminary degree as well as professional training as a therapist. During one of the sessions the counselor asked me, “What’s it like when you pray about this, Rich?” I replied, “I’m not sure.” To which she responded, “Well, if you’re not sure that probably means that you haven’t been praying about it.” Ouch.

So I committed myself to praying daily for the person that I was most struggling with. And it really helped! It helped me look more sympathetically towards them. It helped me examine my role in the troubles and act more constructively. I discovered it’s easier to act more constructively towards someone we’ve been praying for!

As we close, I invite you to think about a concrete situation in your life where there’s conflict or tension, or even open hostility. Bring it before God now. Pray for all those involve. Acknowledge your emotions, even the most negative ones. Bring all that to God, and then ask for God’s help.

Let’s pray.   (After a time of silence.)

Loving God, you have called us to love our enemies. Help us not to deny our strong emotions, but rather to bring them to you, so that we may not be controlled by them, but rather by you. We pray this in the name of Christ our Savior. Amen.



Post a comment