An Angry Prayer (Psalm 139)

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

Psalm 139:19 NRSV

Well that does not sound very Christian, does it? What happened to love your neighbours? What happened to love your enemies? What about forgiveness? What about the fruit of the Spirit, namely love, peace, kindness, joy, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control? Nope, none of that seems to be here in the Psalmist’s mind. Rather, “kill the wicked.”

Is a Jesus follower supposed to just ignore verses such as these? Indeed, I sometimes read Psalm 139 at the hospital bedside, as most of Psalm 139 is very uplifting. Sometimes I forgot to end with verse 18 and carry on with “kill the wicked. . . ” It seems very jarring at the bedside of an ill person. It seems very jarring here in this otherwise beautiful Psalm. However, while “hate filled” verses such as these can feel very out of place in our lives, in fact they can be very helpful in our present circumstance. They are in the Christian Scriptures, and for good reason.

We can first recognize what this prayer is not. It is not a prayer for God to take out the people I don’t like. It is not a prayer of revenge upon people that have hurt me.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—

Psalms 139:19 NRSV

The wicked are defined here not as people who have hurt me, but people who destroy other people as a way of life. This is a prayer for God to intervene and stop the destruction in the lives of the innocent. The bloodthirsty are further described as

those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Psalms 139:20 NRSV

The “bloodthirsty” pay no attention to God, or God’s way of doing things. Having no regard for God, they have neither regard for people created in the image of God, nor regard for the laws which protect those people.

This prayer can help us pray today. In some ways we, at least in Canada, live in a very different world than the Psalmist. While disregard for God may be common among Canadians, an influential heritage of Christian ethics mixed with good doses of reason means that most Canadians could not be described as “bloodthirsty.” We do not fear for our lives near as much as the people did when Psalm 139 was written. Except perhaps we do.

While Canadians are not bloodthirsty, COVID-19 is. While Canadians are not terribly destructive, cancer is. While Canadians are generally nice people, there is nothing nice about Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any other disease we can think of. If we are not being overly theological about it, Canadians are generally “good” people. There is nothing good about oppression and injustice. The Psalmist’s prayer can give expression to our desire for God to intervene and destroy all these bloodthirsty things in people’s lives. O that you would destroy CVOD-19, O God. We can pray for miraculous interventions. We can pray for perseverance and success for those who are working towards vaccines, cures, and justice. It is not wrong to nurture hatred for destructive elements in people’s lives.

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.

Psalms 139:21-22 NRSV

The Psalmist’s angry prayer is not a prayer for getting revenge, like the prayer I might pray upon the kids that picked on me in grade 6, as much as I might like that. This is not a way to opt out of the difficult journey of forgiveness. This is not an excuse to avoid the difficult journey of growing in love, of picking up one’s cross and following Jesus who from the cross did not pray “O that you would kill the wicked, O God,” but “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Rather, this is a prayer for justice and mercy. Do our hearts yearn for justice and mercy for all people, across all peoples? Then we will want all people to be freed from oppression and injustice. We will want all people to be freed from disease and illness. We will want all people to have equal access to cures, treatments and vaccines. We will pray for what we want. We may even pray an angry prayer. Perhaps we who are Canadian Christians have been to nice in our prayers.

(This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which has replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions. You can watch the full worship expression, or the reflection alone)

The video version of this week’s “Shrunk Sermon”