In his at-times searing memoir A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis at one point reflects on Jesus’ invitation “Knock and the door will be opened unto you.” But in his grief and in his seeking of answers as to why his wife had died of cancer, Lewis claimed that he had in fact not just knocked but pounded on the door of heaven until his knuckles were raw. But, Lewis wrote, from the other side of the door “all I could hear was the bolting and double-bolting of the door.”
His writing breaks off at that point and then the next paragraph begins. “I wrote that last night. It was a yell more than a thought.”
A yell more than a thought. That line occurred to me when I read Psalm 70 in preparation for writing this sermon commentary. Psalm 70 is one of the shortest of all the 150 psalms and with the exception of one brief line about wanting God’s people be able to rejoice in God’s goodness, the psalm is a yell, a yawp, a no-holds-barred pleading for God to act in the face of whatever grim circumstances were facing this poet at the time.
The psalm is bookended with cries for God to hasten, to come quickly, to not delay. The psalmist is clearly not hoping for God to give him stamina for the long haul! He wants his circumstances to be alleviated yesterday. It reminds me a little of the old joke about praying to God, “O Lord, give me patience. Quickly!”
In between those initial and then final urgings for God to get moving immediately, the psalmist spends a decent percentage of this short prayer asking for God to take care of his enemies. (Surely the most memorable part of this psalm is the part where his enemies are depicted as saying “Aha! Aha!” I guess that doesn’t need much explanation in terms of what this means but it’s a curious turn of phrase!). But unlike some of the harsher imprecatory psalms, Psalm 70 does not ask for the destruction of these people nor for any violence to befall them. Curiously the focus is that they be forced to face up to disgrace, to shame, to confusion.
It may be a little difficult to know what that would entail for these people. After all, the psalmist claims in verse 2 that they are trying to take his very life. The stakes seem pretty high if that is the case. Most of the time people who are that potentially violent or deadly are not much given to being shamed. And anyway, if they really are murderous in their intent, is asking for them to be confused a punishment that fits the crime?
These are not easy questions to answer. It may be that as in certain cultures today, perhaps in the Ancient Near East the idea of having honor was so esteemed that being shamed or disgraced really was more serious a consequence than we might think. In some Asian societies to this day people can be led to attempt or actually to commit suicide if they feel shamed, if they are disgraced in front of peers or family or colleagues. This might be a bigger deal than we realize, in other words. It is even possible that to be shamed, confused, and disgraced was worse to some people than actually enduring a physical punishment. It might have been a fate worse than death.
Whatever the precise ins and outs of all that, however, Christians today—and those of us who preach to Christians in the church today—are still left with the standard issue involving psalms of even mild imprecation. True, Psalm 70 is milder than some psalms that call for wholesale destruction of people, for the breaking of their arms and teeth, for the smashing of baby brains against rocks. But even so this psalm comes to people whose Savior and Lord counseled that we have to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and never repay and eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.
The One we hail as the Prince of Peace took all the imprecations and curses of Scripture against sin and evil upon himself on the cross once and for all to snap history’s never-ending cycles of violence and revenge. So what do we do with Psalm 70 and other such psalms that traffic in varying levels of imprecation and curses and desires to see foes squashed one way or the other?
When I have wrestled with these questions with students in Psalms classes, many students have pointed out that if nothing else, the existence of imprecatory psalms in the Bible testify to something we all know but may be reluctant to admit: we all feel this way sometimes. We may not like feeling this way, we may feel guilty about feeling vengeful but . . . well, such unsanctified thoughts crop up in us now and then. Prayers like Psalm 70 show us that yes, this is the case.
However, it is by no means clear the ancient Israelites who composed these songs felt many pangs of guilt over them. They do not seem to hesitate to express such vengeful thoughts. But now we as Christians do need to hesitate and even to repent over such longings. Biblically and theologically this can be a knotty matter. People who today want to indulge in vengeful prayers against enemies can, after all, quote chapter and verse. “It’s in the Bible, pastor!” not a few of us have heard from parishioners who are angry over some terrorist attack or some local atrocity committed by one thug or another and who want the pastor to pray in public for their destruction.
If we tell people, “Well, that shouldn’t be in the Bible” or “Some parts of the Bible are less inspired than others,” we likely will land in swift trouble depending on our context. So perhaps a better answer is to say that God knows about these things and always has. God knows what evil people do, the harm it inflicts, and the understandable desires for revenge this stokes in people of goodwill and good moral character. And so as God’s redemption plan slowly played out across history, even God’s people gave voice to this now and again. But those psalms were stops along the way to salvation, not the end of the matter.
The end of the matter is Christ Jesus who took all this history-long pile of garbage and mayhem and suffered the punishment for all of it. The end of the matter is the word of the Living Word made flesh who told us to love and to forgive even the worst people we encounter. Yes, for now and in this world we can still believe in actions having consequences and so we need not think that supporting law enforcement or sending people to jail in the wider societies in which we live violates our commitment to Jesus or to his Gospel. But personally and as a church community, we follow the lead of the Savior and so do not revel in vengeful thoughts much less on a personal or communal level seek to carry out violence even against those who all things being equal we could all agree deserve it.
Probably all of this has some bearing on our opinions regarding other civic topics like the death penalty or sentencing guidelines for criminals or how the prison system gets run in any given country but those are topics best discussed somewhere other than the pulpit. But what the pulpit can suggest is the baseline position from which believers could at least agree to begin such conversations and deliberations, all bathed in prayer to the Prince of Peace who has blazed for us a still better kingdom way to live and to think and to pray.
In his classic Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis—yes, the same Lewis who uttered the “yell” at the head of this sermon commentary—mused a bit on the divine command to forgive as we have been forgiven. Lewis wrote this not long after the end of World War II when his home country of England was still recovering from years of trauma caused by German bombers and a significant loss of life in many British cities. In the light of that, Lewis famously said that everybody agrees that forgiveness is a lovely idea . . . right up until you actually have someone to forgive. Like the Nazis. In the abstract we love forgiveness. But it is when we can put a name and a face to a crime or to a tragedy that forgiveness sticks in our craw and instead we start spinning out fantasies of revenge.
Not for nothing did Jesus once say that the path that leads to righteousness is not the wide and easy road but the rather narrow and tricky one.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 8, 2020
Psalm 70 Commentary