Turning Cursing Into Prayer | 08.01.21 | Psalms Pt 3
This summer we’re exploring selections from the Book of Psalms – what has been long described as the prayer book of the Bible.
A collection of 150 diverse prayers and in some cases, songs, – this compilation represents both individual and communal worship of both Jews and Christians for thousands of years.
The Book of Psalms occupies a unique place in the Bible.
As an ancient theologian of the 3rd century, Athanasius of Alexandria, once wrote, “most of Scripture speaks to us; but the Psalms speak for us.”
These songs and prayers authentically reflect the depths of the human condition – of what we experience in life.
More particularly, the psalms reveal how we can and should relate and respond to God in the midst of all of our thoughts, emotions, and questions — from joyful, praise-filled confidence to sorrowful, angry confusion.
Last week, we learned about how the psalms give us permission to lament – to passionately and unreservedly express in the midst of our pain and sorrow our frustrations, our questions, and even our doubts to God.
Hearing not just that we have permission but that we need to lament before the Lord was a new insight – perhaps even a challenging one.
Again, both culturally and even with the history of much of the the practice of the Christian faith, we have been taught to pull ourselves together and put on a happy face even if it’s fake.
But we don’t have to fake it to make it in our relationship with God.
The Lord embraces us as we are – the fullness of who and where we are and doesn’t want us to hold anything back when we engage Him.
Just how true this is – that there are no boundaries in expressing ourselves to God – will be made clear as we look at today’s selection from the Book of Psalms.
It’s a representative sample from within a subset of the psalms of lament.
Known as the imprecatory psalms, these are prayers and songs that give us license – permission to curse.
You heard that right. Curse.
The psalm we are about to hear will likely shock and maybe even offend us.
It seemingly will fly in the face of what we’ve been taught in terms of being a good Christian.
But as we listen to this off-color prayer of David, instead of moving so fast to stick the proverbial bar of soap in his mouth, let’s step back and wrestle with the fact psalms like one model – not the kind of talk we should be avoiding but the kind of talk we need to lifting up in prayer to God.
Here is Psalm 109.
For lots of people – especially Christians – their biggest hang-up or pet peeve is cursing – the use of foul language.
Well, I guess they never read psalms like this one.
Again, this is one of the imprecatory psalms, which is just a fancy way of saying, the cursing prayers of the Bible.
Imprecatory psalms center around invoking a curse upon one’s enemy.
In fact, if we look carefully at the heading to this particular psalm which calls for these words to be put to music – this is more of a cursing song.
I guess David forgot to affix the “Parental Advisory Warning” for explicit content that is required on today’s music that contains cursing.
Psalms like these are not for the faint of heart or for those who won’t stand for “that kind of talk.”
David, the “golden boy” of the Old Testament to some, the king of Israel who anticipates the coming of Jesus, has got quite a mouth on him in this poem.
The specific situation that prompts David to write these words is unknown.
All we know from what David shares is that he is being wrongfully accused, viciously slandered, and repeatedly attacked by an individual or a group of people.
“for people who are wicked and deceitful have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues. With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause.” – Psalm 109:2-3
To add injury to insult, whoever it is, they are someone whom David loves and has treated with nothing but kindness and goodness.
“In return for my friendship, they accuse me… They repay me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship.” – Psalm 109:4
And how does David respond to being repaid “evil for good and hatred for his friendship”?
David severely and graphically calls for unrelenting retribution upon those who have wronged him.
And we’re not talking about your run of the mill salty language here.
David’s curses are intense, offensive, and way more foul than the four letter words that come out of our mouths.
Mad as hell, David isn’t kissing his mother with the stuff he’s spewing here.
Just how down and dirty does David get in this rant?
He so harsh and unforgiving that he throws the book at those who have wronged him.
“Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him be found guilty…” – Psalm 109:6-7
David, notice, calls down thunder and damnation not just upon his enemies but their families as well.
“May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.” – Psalm 109:10-12
David rages for them and their memory to be completely “cut off” and “blotted out.”
“May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out. May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may blot out their name from the earth.” – Psalm 109:13-15
He insists there be no chance at redemption for them – that even their prayers may be counted as sin.
What David vomits out in this song is so unsettling, some translators have attempted to reframe the heart of this psalm (verses 6 – 19) as not being David’s words against his enemies but rather the list of grievances David has against them.
Some Bible translations, for example, add “They say…” at the start of the litany that begins in verse 6 – shifting all these curses as not coming from David’s lips but instead from the lips of his enemies.
But there is no textual support in the original Hebrew language for this insertion, this addition – and proposed shift in focus.
No, as we uncomfortably work our way through the something like twenty-four curses called down in verses 6 to 20, it’s kind of hard to reconcile the idea David’s been talking about what someone else has done rather than what HE wants God to do to his enemies.
The sustained cursing in this psalm is so strong that writers like C.S. Lewis, when looking at this passage, have remarked “it strikes us in the face like heat from the mouth of a furnace.”
What do we do with a psalm like this?
Perhaps it would be easier if we could write off Psalm 109 as an outlier – a one off – the only prayer or song within this collection that has such harsh and vindictive things to say in God’s name.
But as I mentioned, Psalm 109 is but one of many such songs and prayers in this book, that make up an entire category known for cursing one’s enemies and then having the audacity to praise the Lord!
Other major imprecatory psalms like Psalm 69 and Psalm 137 ask God to dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks and ask that God would not listen to the prayers of those who are wicked.
Interestingly – part of this psalm – Psalm 109 is quoted in the Book of Acts – the very first chapter – as part of the rationale for replacing Judas.
The words of this cursing song are used to frame Judas as the would-be villain in the gospels.
Judas is framed as the lone bad guy – even though all of the disciples betrayed Jesus in their own way when Christ was arrested and went to the Cross.
Again, what do we do with these psalms?
What are we to make of songs and prayers that curse – that invoke a violent reckoning upon the wicked: broken and ripped out teeth, of one’s enemy melting like a slug or becoming like a stillborn child, and then, dipping your feet in the blood of the wicked?
These don’t seem like the type of things that nice Christians should be praying or singing – let alone saying.
I don’t remember growing up in the Church – in Sunday school as a child – and being taught stuff like this was on the list of all the possible things you could pray to God for – raining down curses on my enemy – humbly asking that my enemy’s children become fatherless or his spouse a widow.
Doesn’t a song like this fly in the face of Jesus’ call to forgive and love our enemies – of the apostle Paul’s admonition to bless those who persecute us – to bless rather than to curse?
As a father, I’d immediately correct my children for uttering such petitions in the name of the Lord but here they are as the inspired word of God.
Shouldn’t psalms like these should be on the black list of prayers?
Is Psalm 109 and others like it – these imprecatory psalms – giving us inspired, scriptural permission to curse those who have wronged us?
Is this what God wants? The answer is Yes and no.
Even as we remain unnerved by David’s talk here, let’s make a few observations about what David says and doesn’t say here – as well as why.
David’s curses are not a call for judgment against the innocent; they are a cry for retribution against the wicked – those who are doing evil – engaging in abuse, spreading lies, and betraying the bonds of friendship.
David and the other authors of these imprecatory psalms had a strong sense of right and wrong – one that was based not in their own definition of what is right and wrong but one that was rooted in their understanding of God’s character and purposes.
To put this another way, their anger and indigation was not about their personal opinions, preference, or comfort zone being offended; their anger and indignation had to do with the violation of shalom – the way life is supposed to be – the way God created our lives together to function.
The Hebrew word, “shalom” means wholeness, harmony, and well-being – not just in an individual sense (I’m good) but in a communal – all creation sense (Together, we’re good).
To a Jew, anything that disturbs or disrupts shalom is not just a violation against the individual; it is a violation of the community.
Notice how in the first five verses of Psalm 109 David begins by lamenting his own mistreatment by others but then starting in verse 16, David extends his lament to include crying out on behalf of the poor and needy who have been wronged and hurt by the lack of neighborly love.
“For he never thought of doing a kindness, but hounded to death the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted.” – Psalm 109:16
Even more than this, to disturb or disrupt shalom is not just a violation against the individual and the community; it is ultimately an offense against God.
If we worship a God who is just, then injustice is an attack against the Lord.
Injustice violates the sacred trust upon which God seeks for authentic community to be built.
If we worship a God of peace – who engages us out of love and with forgiveness – then any and all manipulation, falsehood, abuse, oppression, and violence toward others – are all breaches of our relationship with the Lord.
Violence in all its forms – whether through manipulation, falsehood, abuse or oppression – propagates a life lived together out of fear and defensiveness and violates the kind of life God intended for us to share – again one of faith – of mutual openness, care, protection, and generosity.
If we worship a God who creates all that is good, then any damage we inflict on each other and creation itself is to defile and desecrate what God has made – what is good rather than to respect and honor it.
Injustice, violence, and the damage we inflict either willfully or from our indifference are all expressions of evil.
They are manifestations of wickedness – the breaking of shalom. They are an affront to the redemptive will and restorative purposes of God in our lives and in this world – and therefore, amount to nothing less than an attack on the Lord.
While what David is experiencing is personal to him – his own sense of being wronged, what David cries out for is the vindication of God’s righteousness – for the life and the world to be set right – for evil and wickedness to be removed from existence.
We can presume to sit in judgment on David for his words here.
We may be embarrassed – perhaps even a tad pious – to ever imagine singing or praying words like these… until we find ourselves as fed up or as outraged as David.
But, as much as we may hate to admit it, sometimes the words that come out of our mouths sure sounds a lot like David’s.
When we ourselves have the experience of being treated without any dignity or honor – neglected, abused, or assassinated in some manner – let alone to witness someone else being denigrated, marginalized, or wronged – a deep, unflinching sense of righteous indignation rises up within us often reaching a boiling point where we cannot help but to speak or act – pushing back in some way.
There are moments when we just can’t take it anymore — when we need to express our frustration, our disquiet, our rage against the injustices of this world.
Cursing language is coarse and profane. It’s supposed to be.
Profane – origins of that word convey the notion of being outside the Temple – outside of what is sacred and pure and holy.
Profane expression then corresponds to profane experience.
Dirty talk conveys that what has happened, what is happening, is disordered, undesirable – not right – not the way life is supposed to be – as God intended it.
There is a difference between dropping curses into our speech to be provocative and edgy versus doing so to call out something as wrong – something as violating shalom – the way the Lord created life to be.
There is a difference between advocating for the equitable and respectful treatment of all persons – which also includes me – versus getting hot, bothered, and salty because I am not getting my way – the attention and recognition I believe I deserve, because my opinions, my preferences, and my desires – are not being validated or satisfied to my liking.
There is a difference between cursing out of righteous anger – out of love for the Gospel – for what is true and good for all the world – and cursing out of malicious intent – venomously seeking to harm another – vindictively looking for our pound of flesh.
This leads us to a second, important observation about this cursing psalm.
While we only read aloud the first 21 verses, if we follow this song, this prayer to its conclusion we clearly see that David doesn’t take matters into his own hands.
While he expresses these curses, David does not seek to administer these curses himself.
Help me, Lord my God; save me according to your unfailing love. Let them know that it is your hand, that you, Lord, have done it. While they curse, may you bless; may those who attack me be put to shame, but may your servant rejoice. -Psalm 109:26-28
David calls upon the Lord, in God’s own way and in God’s own time, to pass judgment and to bring justice.
This is not just the pattern of this psalm but of all the imprecatory psalms – unabashedly crying out for retribution – calling down the thunder – but always leaving it to the Lord – and to the Lord alone – to control the weather – to right the wrongs and to restore shalom.
In other words, the imprecatory or cursing psalms are not about enacting personal vengeance; they are about seeking divine retribution.
And there’s a big difference between the two.
Personal vengeance is about taking revenge – indulging our desire to give bad people what we think they deserve.
Divine retribution is about God alone knowing what is right, judging the situation, and enacting not blind justice but true justice.
Increasingly, we live in a society that is deeply geared towards vengeance.
Satisfying the thirst for revenge – for payback – is heralded in the stories we tell and we watch for entertainment.
Taking matters into our own hands and knocking somebody else out before they knock you down is not advice that is generally frowned upon; it is argued as the only way to survive and get ahead in this world.
This reality is reflected in the extremity of “road rage” in the simple act of getting from here to there.
This reality is witnessed in the rise of domestic violence against women, children, foreigners, people of color, and members of the LGBTQI community.
This reality is unmistakably evident in our harsh communal punishments, including capital punishment – wherein the aim of our prison system is not restorative but rather penal justice.
This reality is undeniable obvious in our political sphere as the name of the game among both parties is not to work together but one each other up – to attack each other – all in the name of “what’s best for the nation.”
And as we’ve been reminded this past week through the testimony related to what happened at our nation’s Capitol of January 6th, for some the assertion of vengeance is not only a right, an expression of our freedom, but worshipped as an act of patriotism.
In a world without God, if we believe we’re right – and especially, if we believe we’ve been wronged, then getting vengeance is not only perceived as a viable option; it is forcefully argued to be our obligation.
Whether it’s outrage over another mass shooting or because of proposed laws for gun control, whether it’s indignation over a perpetual cycle of abuse and injustice towards a particular gender, race, or ethnic group or because of being sick and tired of having to be more culturally sensitive, politically correct, or hearing about one’s privilege, whether it’s fury over a contested election and being convinced that our country is being stolen and has to be taken back or because we are alarmed our country is being threatened and needs to be protected, all that anger – the type of anger that desires vengeance, is a real human emotion and it is one, apart from the counsel of psalms, we feed and we satisfy in dangerous and destructive ways.
On our own apart from God, we either act upon such anger or attempt to deny its presence.
If we act upon it, if we take revenge, we don’t make things better, we make things worse.
We do not honor or protect God. We defiantly spit in the face of God.
If we deny our anger – burying it deep inside – pretending it doesn’t exist – we turn ourselves into a ticking time bomb.
Eventually, inevitably, we will either implode – destroying ourselves from the inside – our body, our mind breaking under all that stress – in trying to choke and manage all that anger,
finally, one day, we will explode in one, seismic eruption or through a series of prolonged but just as damaging bursts – unleashing all those bottled up frustrations, turning someone who doesn’t deserve it – maybe even a bunch of random people who aren’t prepared for it – into casualties of all our dormant, unfiltered rage.
The problem is not with the anger.
There’s nothing wrong with being angry that life, this world is not all that it is supposed to be – what we sense deep within our bones, it can be.
To deny that anger is to deny the injustice, the violence, and the damage we plainly see all around us.
That anger – righteous anger – is God-given – meant to grab our attention before the temptation to wrap ourselves in a cocoon and isolate ourselves from each other.
That anger – righteous anger – God-given – calls us to keep longing and working for change by the grace of God rather than turning a blind eye and just going our own way.
That anger – righteous anger – leads us to the Cross – the love of God which is stronger than evil – which conquers evil through forgiveness, which overcomes the greatest wrong of all – death itself.
That anger – righteous anger – compels us – to keep following Jesus and through the gift of the Word and the Spirit – to become like Christ – to embody the way, truth, and the life of Jesus – and participate in God’s promise of a better world – a more just, peaceful, and ultimately redeemed world.
That anger – righteous anger – is God-given which means it needs to be directed back to God.
We cannot take matters into our own hands because we cannot, by ourselves, fix all that is wrong in this world – all that is not right in us.
Notice David curses – he articulates his anger, he doesn’t deny his thirst for vengeance, but in the end, David gives all that anger, surrenders that impulse towards revenge, and puts himself – puts his life, puts this world – in God’s hands.
David prays through cursing.
He acknowledges his anger even as he recognizes his inability to deal properly with the wickedness of his adversaries.
David does not put his faith in his own ability to set things right, but instead turns all his anger into an offering – trusting God to do what only God can do rightly – what only God is responsible for – passing judgment and executing final justice.
David asserts both the Lord’s justice and judgment will come out of God’s unfailing love – love that does not ignore what is wrong – love that reckons with what is wrong – but love that is able to bring good out of evil.
Psalms like these, the imprecatory psalms, give us permission to be angry – even to curse.
Songs and prayers like Psalm 109 encourage us not to hold back our anger but also not to act upon it towards others.
There is a significant difference between cursing the evil that people do and calling down curses on people – who are just as broken, flawed, and yet worthy of redemption as we are.
Still, it is far better, far healthier for us to express all that profanity rather than to let it fester and overtake us.
The point of psalms like these is learning to release our anger towards the One whom we cannot injure or harm with it.
Maybe if I reserved my foul language for God, I’d speak more lovingly towards my brother or sister in Christ.
Maybe if I let off steam with my Father, I’d be less inclined to nail those I profess to love to the wall and crucify Christ anew.
Maybe we don’t need to shy away from such talk as much as express it towards the right person.
The point of psalms like these is learning to release our anger – to the only One who could do something about it.
We are directing our ill-conceived rants towards the God who in Christ turns the ultimate curse of the Cross into the instrument of our redemption.
Rightly understood, these are prayers of relinquishment.
We are letting our anger be shaped and focused by God so that all frustrations and indignations are not self-centered but Christ-centered – formed and expressed around the Lord’s vision and promise of shalom – of justice, peace, and harmony.
Prayers and songs like Psalm 109 are not the prayers and songs of nice Christians, but they are the prayers and songs of real Christians – followers of Jesus who believe, who long, who hope, and who embody the Gospel’s assurance of the dawn of a better world.
Rather than taking matters into our own hands, we pray – and yes, even curse, like David, leaving the reckoning of the matter in the Lord’s hands and not ours. Trusting that God will do what is right – right by us and right for all.