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The Mirror of the Psalms

By Bryan Owen

Every once in a while, we hear words from a psalm in our corporate worship that trouble or shock us. It’s pretty rare that this happens in the eucharistic lectionary appointed for Sundays. But since the Daily Office lectionary gets around to the recitation of most of the psalms, sooner or later it’s going to happen in Morning or Evening Prayer.

If we follow the Daily Office lectionary, eventually we’ll come across these verses from perhaps the greatest of the “cursing” psalms:

Set a wicked man against him,
and let an accuser stand at this right hand.
When he is judged, let him be found guilty,
and let his appeal be in vain.
Let his days be few,
and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless,
and his wife become a widow.
Let his children be waifs and beggars;
Let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.
Let the creditor seize everything he has;
let strangers plunder his gains.
Let there be no one to show him kindness,
and none to pity his fatherless children.
— Psalm 109:5-11 (BCP, p. 751)

Psalm 109 continues with graphic, vengeful detail for eight more verses.

There are many other examples in the psalms, such as this:

I destroy those who hate me;
they cry out, but there is none to help them;
they cry to the LORD, but he does not answer.
— Psalm 18:41 (BCP, p. 605)

Or this:

Let not those who surround me lift up their heads;
let the evil of their lips overwhelm them.
Let hot burning coals fall upon them;
let them be cast into the mire, never to rise up again.
— Psalm 140:9-10 (BCP, p. 796)

Or this:

The Lord who is at your right hand
will smite kings in the day of his wrath;
he will rule over the nations.
He will heap high the corpses;
he will smash heads over the wide earth.
— Psalm 110:5-6 (BCP, pp. 753-754)

And then there’s the conclusion of Psalm 137:

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,
against the people of Edom,
who said, “Down with it! down with it!
even to the ground!”
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!
— Psalm 137:7-9 (BCP, p. 792)

It’s hard to imagine a more graphic example of the desire for vengeance against one’s enemies. But there it is, right in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Don’t these passages flat-out contradict our Lord’s teaching: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27)? Wouldn’t it therefore be wrong to pray like this?

I think this is too thin a reading of what’s going on. At least initially, the New Zealand Prayer Book gets it right:

The wide appeal of the psalms rests on their ability to give words to some of our deepest feelings in the face of life’s experiences. Whether for joy, worship and exaltation, or degradation and rejection, or hope, faith, love, anger, or despair, the psalms contain verses that reflect such moods. In them the writers expressed to God the thoughts of their heart and spirit. The richness of the psalms still speaks to us and in them we too can find words to match many of our moods and express them before God (A New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 195).

Ironically, almost as soon as the New Zealand Prayer Book affirms the need and appropriateness of expressing our “deepest feelings” across the full range of possibilities, it categorically rejects the expression of some of these feelings in worship as unacceptable, perhaps even un-Christian: “Some omissions have been made on the grounds that we are not making a new translation of the Book of Psalms, but providing psalms suitable for Christian worship. Some verses of the psalms are not suitable for use in the corporate worship of the Church” (p. 195) .And so the New Zealand Prayer Book sanitizes the psalms by taking out the verses I’ve cited above, as well as many others that are deemed “not suitable” (including omitting Psalms 58 and 83 entirely).

By contrast, Kathleen Norris offers a perspective on the psalms that provides a helpful corrective to sanitizing them. In an essay entitled “The Paradox of the Psalms” in her book The Cloister Walk, Norris candidly acknowledges the difficulties posed by some of the psalms, but simultaneously suggests that it’s precisely those difficulties that make them relevant:

… to the modern reader the psalms can seem impenetrable: how in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture? At a glance they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world. And that’s the point, or part of it. As one reads the psalms every day, it becomes clear that the world they depict is not really so different from our own; the fourth-century monk Athanasius wrote that the psalms ‘become like a mirror to the person singing them,’ and this is as true now as when he wrote it” (The Cloister Walk, p. 93).

In addition to many other deep feelings, the psalms mirror for us the bitterness, hatred, and vengefulness that infect our hearts. They remind us that we religious folks are still fully human, all-too-human. And they show us that, in the name of our religion, we are fully capable of inflicting evil and suffering on others. “The psalms are unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche,” Norris observes. And she continues: “They ask us to consider our true situation, and to pray over it. They ask us to be honest about ourselves and admit that we, too, harbor the capacity for vengeance” (The Cloister Walk, p. 104). And again:

The psalms reveal our most difficult conflicts, and our deep desire, in Jungian terms, to run from the shadow. In them, the shadow speaks to us directly, in words that are painful to hear” (p. 97).

But taken as a whole, the psalms don’t leave us there. “The psalms mirror our world,” writes Norris, “but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values” (p. 103). This kind of transformation-by-confrontation into deeper self-awareness can’t happen, however, if we sanitize the psalms by editing out all of those parts that make us uncomfortable or express feelings which some may deem “not suitable.”

At the same time the psalms serve as a mirror revealing the fullness of our humanity, they also give us permission to pray all of it. When it comes to keeping company with God, no feelings are out of bounds. The good, the bad, and the ugly – the psalms allow us to lift it all up before the Lord in prayer. Here’s what Norris says about this:

In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the psalms act as good psychologists. They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first” (The Cloister Walk, p. 96).

In short, the psalms – including especially the ugly, angry, vengeful psalms – allow us to pray as fully human beings who harbor feelings we may recoil from when we hear them expressed by others (perhaps even especially in scripture), but which, if we’re honest, we harbor within ourselves. By giving us permission to pray those raw feelings and by providing models for how to do it, the psalms are God’s gift to us. As Norris sums it up: “What the psalms offer us is the possibility of transformation, of converting a potentially deadly force such as vengeance into something better” (The Cloister Walk, p. 104). And that is precisely the kind of work we need to do to grow more fully into the image and likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


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