What happens when as a spiritual exercise you commit to praying though the Psalms and very early on you get to a verse like Psalm 3, verse 7?
Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Psalm 3:7 NRSV
This verse is calling out for what I would call a “boot to the head” of the enemy. Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?
In visiting the elderly or the sick I often like to read Psalm 139 with all its comforting thoughts but sometimes I forget to stop at verse 18 and read:
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Psalm 139:19-22 NRSV
Note how the one praying is not just filled with hatred, but “perfect hatred.” How nice! Or how about the time that I opened worship using Psalm 149 as a call to worship but forgot to end at verse 5:
6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
9 to execute on them the judgement decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 149:6-9 NRSV
As a Christian I have to ask how can this fit with the words of Jesus when he says “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” in Luke 6:28 (NRSV). Or as Paul commends the teaching of Jesus to the Christians in Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14 NRSV). Reading the not-so-pretty parts of the Psalms makes me feel less like a Jesus follower and more like an extremist jihadist. How can I love the enemy as Jesus taught while praying for their destruction as the Psalmists do?
Here are four thoughts to help us:
First, recognize the circumstances of the writer. Psalm 3, for example, was written by David when his son Absalom took the throne from him and was seeking to end his life, chasing after him with an army no less. You can read about this in 2 Samuel chapters 15-18. We each go through troubles, but how many of us as comfy Canadians have ever faced a situation quite like that? Put yourself in the Psalmist’s shoes for a moment, and rather than expressing hatred along with the Psalmist you just might find yourself expressing gratitude for having it so good.
Second, recognize that the Psalms are sometimes not as personal as we might tend to read them. When we read of the Psalmist’s desire for a “boot to the head” of the enemy, our minds may go straight to thinking of individuals that have offended us in some way. The Psalmist, on the other hand, may rather be asking God for a military victory against a vicious army. Indeed when you read the background story to Psalm 3, David does not want his enemy, his son, Absalom to die. When he hears of his son’s death, far from celebrating an answered prayer, he mourns.
Third, we can think of the enemies all around us that are threatening to crush and/or kill us. As Canadians we may not be able to think of anyone out to kill us, but can we think of anything? Cancer? Boot to the head Lord! Addictions? Boot to the head Lord! Gossip? Boot to the head of gossip Lord! Lies? Boot to the head of lies! Satan himself? Dear God, boot to the head!
Fourth, when the name or a face of someone who has wounded you cannot help but come to mind, then go ahead and let God’s Word help you express your pain and anger. “This is how I really feel, Lord” is a valid and valuable prayer, “I wish you would give a boot to the head of my enemy. That is how I feel.” This fourth point deserves a little more attention . . .
It is interesting at how we might feel that we sin by being angry, but scripture does not condemn anger as sin by itself: “Be angry but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26 NRSV). We sin, not by being angry, but by what we do with our anger. Far better to express our anger to God in prayer, than to another person with our fists, words, or manipulations.
This is where we can see that prayer is a conversation that moves, and moves us over time. We may think that we cannot pray until we have a well thought out and tidied up prayer, a “finished product” worthy of an “A” from an English teacher. Forget that, just pray. Pray when you are too upset to get your words together. Pray when your prayers are too ugly for the church prayer meeting or even your best friend. Pray an honest prayer like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:
33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; Mark 14:33-36a NRSV
This was not a pretty well thought out prayer. But Jesus’ prayer moved into: “yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36b NRSV). Basically Jesus went from “Dad, this sucks” to “You are love and grace, and I will join with you as you pour out your love and grace.” And not only did the prayer of Jesus change, but also his expression; from distressed and agitated in the garden, to calm, cool, and collected before the High Priest, before Herod, and before Pilate. Prayer does stuff like that.
When there is someone in your life you find yourself truly loathing, let the Psalms lead you into prayer. But then let the Holy Spirit move you through prayer so that you can move from “Boot to the head of that person Lord, and that is how I feel about it” to “You Lord, are love and grace and I will join you as you pour out your love and grace. Yes, even on that person.”