Psalm 109: A Problematic Prayer

(Based on the exegesis of Walter Brueggemann in Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy, pp. 369-373)

Read Psalm 109


For a few moments I want you to think back on your life to those times when you have been wronged, mistreated, betrayed, abused, used, hurt, or belittled.  Can you remember the people who did these things to you? How much time did you spend dreaming of revenge and retaliation, plotting ways that he or she might suffer for what was done to you?

Now maybe you are too good, too holy, too loving and too pure in heart for any of that. But I am here to tell you that I am not too good, holy, loving or pure in heart to dream or even sometimes plot revenge and retaliation.

Psalm 109 is one of those passages in the Bible we politely and discreetly pass over to something more pleasant and appropriate for what should be Holy Scripture—things like love, forgiveness, mercy, turn the other cheek, and humility. But this psalm is a part of the Bible, and the Bible is often more realistic than we are about the trials and tribulations people encounter in life. The psalms are uniquely equipped to reveal not only God but also our human nature. Some have even said that while the rest of the Bible represents God speaking to us, the Psalms are all about our speaking to God. I would suggest that at some point in our lives, most of us have thought something like what we find in this psalm. In our deep hurt, we want justice, and the only way we can envision that justice being accomplished is through revenge and retaliation. One possible reason for this assumption on our part is because those who have abused us don’t care about what they have done. They seem untouched by the pain they have caused. We realize that they probably will never change. So, the only way to deal with their sort is to strike a mighty blow to them so they are no longer capable of being the source of evil and suffering in this world. In other words, we must seek revenge and retaliation. I would venture to say that at some time in all of our lives, we could say the words of this psalm.

Verses 2-5 make a general complaint of having been wrongly treated and receiving evil for good and hatred for love. But the key verse is verse 6. The psalmist is asking for a special prosecutor who is accustomed to dealing with horrendous evil. Find a prosecutor who is bloodthirsty, mean as a snake, and will do whatever is necessary to convict the guilty. This psalmist does not want some namby-pamby, do-gooder lawyer who has never plumbed the depths of sin, evil, and greed. He wants a cutthroat, experienced, ruthless advocate. And he wants a hanging judge. 

But the psalmist can’t wait for an investigation and trial. In verses 7-20 he presents overwhelming evidence of guilt. He wants to rush to judgment and sentencing. As Walter Brueggemann says in commenting on this psalm, “Here his imagination runs wild, commensurate with his hurt and affront. He imagines that the sentence should include not only the person of the offender, but also the family and property so that there will be no limit to the liability, just as there has apparently been no limit to the evil done. He hopes that none will extend credit or kindness. He wishes not just for punishment, but for the social annihilation of this person, his memory, his name, his future. One who acts as this one has, has no right to social existence in this community.” 

So what has this evil person done that has resulted in this tirade of curse and punishment? We are told that he has shown no kindness. He has exploited the poor and the helpless. He has cursed and not blessed. He has used opportunities to enhance and enrich himself at the expense of the vulnerable. In other words, instead of using his chance to act in ways that would give life, he has chosen to further his own self-interests at the expense of others’ well-being.

The psalmist asks that God carry out strict retribution so that the rewards to those who have been oppressed and the punishment of those who have caused others to suffer will precisely match the offence. And the psalmist anticipates that God will act by righting the wrongs and punishing the evildoer. Why does he assume God will so act? Because his God has made a covenant with Israel to bring about justice and righteousness, to protect the defenseless, and to deliver the oppressed. In verses 30-31 we even find praise, joy, thanksgiving, and deeper trust in God, for the psalmist realized that the God of Israel is his only hope. 

Let’s go back and look more deeply at this troubling psalm. First, we see rage, fury, and indignation. The pain, suffering, humiliation, degradation, and violence suffered by the psalmist are put into words; it is said out loud for all, including God, to hear. The air is cleared. The psalmist has vented. All the anger and frustration have been expressed with harsh and raw words. But once that has happened, something remarkable occurs. All that rage, anger, and frustration are brought to God and placed in God’s hands. The desire for vengeance is relinquished to the Lord. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. The psalmist, for all his ranting and raving, leaves the judgment to God. And he can do so because he is confident that God takes life seriously and will act to right wrongs. God is the Lord of justice, and in the end, justice will prevail.

Brueggemann says that once the psalmist places his demand for vengeance into the hands of God, two things happen. First, that submission to God is irreversible. The psalmist can’t take it back. It now belongs to God. When God says, “Vengeance is mine” (Deuteronomy 32:35), it implies “and not yours.” The psalmist is no longer free to seek vengeance. He has turned it all over completely and finally to God. 

Secondly, when the psalmist turns his vengeance over to God, he submits to God’s free decisions and actions as how to deal with this injustice. God will avenge, but in God’s own way and in God’s own time (and perhaps not as we would wish and hope). God takes our desire for vengeance and passes it through Her sovereign freedom which is marked by majesty, faithfulness, and compassion. God is permitted to govern as She will. And just as importantly, the psalmist is once again free to start living unencumbered. He no longer has to spend so much time and precious life energy on his rage and desire for vengeance. He can turn it all over to God confident that God hears his cry, will right the wrongs he has suffered, and will vindicate him—but in ways that are consistent with the will and character of his Lord. 

We humans usually deal with our rage and hunger for retaliation when injustices have been done to us in one of two ways. The first way is to repress that rage and never to bring it to expression—perhaps never even to recognize its presence. But whenever that happens, the outcome eventually will either be a person who is eaten alive by their unexpressed anger or a person who one day explodes like a time-bomb. The other option is to act on our rage and desire for vengeance—to become perhaps just as bad and destructive as those who have oppressed us. If we repress our anger and desire for vengeance, we will likely self-destruct. If we act on our anger and desire for retaliation, we will multiply the pain and violence in the world. This psalm presents a third option, a healthy alternative: articulate your pain and anger, bring it to God, place it in God’s hands, leave it with God to deal with, and free yourself to begin life again. 

How many of us have ever had an injustice done to us that would warrant the kind of anger and yearning for retaliation we see in this psalm?

Now, as I said earlier, we’ve all had times when we’ve felt we have been treated unjustly. And we’ve all had at least momentary thoughts of vengeance. But how many of us have ever had an injustice done to us that would warrant the kind of anger and yearning for retaliation we see in this psalm? Read again the cry of the psalmist (Verses 7-15). After reading this psalm more closely, we may conclude that it does not really concern us because we have never had legitimate reasons to be that angry and to call for that much vengeance and retaliation. Brueggemann suggests that any time we approach a psalm which we think doesn’t concern us, we should ask a simple question: “Whose psalm is this?” If this is not my psalm—if I am not able to pray this way today, then who needs to pray this way today?” Who on this earth has the right to this much anger and desire for vengeance? Who is justified in praying this way today? If I’m not, who is?

Perhaps the mother who has only enough food to feed one child and must decide which of her two children must die so the other can live.

Perhaps the woman who has been brutally raped by the son of a powerful and wealthy bigshot who can hire a slick lawyer who knows how to use and abuse the judicial system to get the rapist off the hook.

Perhaps the South American peasant who has worked all his life on his little parcel of land to feed his family and is displaced by a corrupt government or run off his land by militias hired by interest abroad greedily wanting to use his land to grow coffee, bananas, or cattle to sell to the U. S. 

Perhaps a senior citizen who has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous thugs who abuse her trust and rob her of all her savings. 

Perhaps an African-American who has worked so hard and played by all the rules, but because of the color of her skin, is now denied all she has hoped and dreamed for as she witnesses privileged whites with far fewer qualifications enjoy once again unfair advantages.

Perhaps a child who is chained to a workbench, forced to sew clothes that will be sold in our department stores, and beaten when she doesn’t meet her quota even though she has worked fourteen hours a day with little food and no care or compassion.

You see, the reason this psalm, for the most part, doesn’t concern us is that we have never known severe suffering, oppression, need, or despair. In a real sense, I can’t make this my prayer. But I can join in this prayer with those for whom raw anger and the need for vengeance are justified. I can give voice to their anger, and I can use whatever power and resources I have to be a part of God’s answer to these tragedies and injustices. 

As I prepared this sermon, my mind was drawn to Matthew 25, the parable of the “Last Judgment.” I realized something I had never noticed before. In that extended metaphor, Jesus has nothing to say about those who practiced injustice and were directly to blame for the hungry, oppressed, and disenfranchised in this world. Granted, these evil people will face God’s justice, but that was not the focus of this passage. The goats were not those who directly caused all this misery. The goats were those who did nothing to remedy the misery. Their sin was a “sin of omission.” So, if I can’t legitimately pray this psalm, then I need to listen to those who can and then ask (as a sheep and not a goat) what I should do for and with them as a channel of God’s justice and compassion in this world. 

What gives the psalmist hope and peace is his conviction that justice matters to God and because God is compassionate and faithful, the Lord will right wrongs. That’s what it means for God to be ruler of the universe. That’s what it means for God to be the God of Israel. And that’s what it means for God to be the Abba of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim and flesh out is intimately connected to the justice inherent in the transforming shalom God is committed to bring to this world. 

Today, too many in our world can pray this psalm. They have earned the right to call for justice and vengeance. Can we hear their voices? Can we feel their pain?

Thomas Jefferson wrote many years ago, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Slavery was the context of this quote. And here we are in 2021 when this quote is as true, challenging, and poignant today as it was over two centuries ago. 

Today, too many in our world can pray this psalm. They have earned the right to call for justice and vengeance. Can we hear their voices? Can we feel their pain? Can we hear God thundering through history into our own time those immortal words in Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?” And can we find our way of joining in that prayer as we learn what it means to love this world through the eyes, ears, and heart of God? 

(The above exegesis may be called into question by those who read English translations of verse 6 which begins, “They say.” This translation gives the impression that the accuser who speaks the words after “They say” are the enemies of the psalmist and not the psalmist himself.  But the words “They say” are not in the Hebrew text. Here’s another example of a translation becoming a baseless interpretation.)

Psalm 109

Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
    speaking against me with lying tongues.
They beset me with words of hate,
    and attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
    even as I make prayer for them.[a]
So they reward me evil for good,
    and hatred for my love.
Appoint a wicked man against him;
    let an accuser bring him to trial.[b]
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
    let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
    may another seize his goods!
May his children be fatherless,
    and his wife a widow!
10 May his children wander about and beg;
    may they be driven out of[c] the ruins they inhabit!
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
    nor any to pity his fatherless children!
13 May his posterity be cut off;
    may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
    and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
15 Let them be before the Lord continually;
    and may his[d] memory be cut off from the earth!
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
    but pursued the poor and needy
    and the brokenhearted to their death.
17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him!
    He did not like blessing; may it be far from him!
18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
    may it soak into his body like water,
    like oil into his bones!
19 May it be like a garment which he wraps round him,
    like a belt with which he daily girds himself!
20 May this be the reward of my accusers from the Lord,
    of those who speak evil against my life!
21 But thou, O God my Lord,
    deal on my behalf for thy name’s sake;
    because thy steadfast love is good, deliver me!
22 For I am poor and needy,
    and my heart is stricken within me.
23 I am gone, like a shadow at evening;
    I am shaken off like a locust.
24 My knees are weak through fasting;
    my body has become gaunt.
25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
    when they see me, they wag their heads.
26 Help me, O Lord my God!
    Save me according to thy steadfast love!
27 Let them know that this is thy hand;
    thou, O Lord, hast done it!
28 Let them curse, but do thou bless!
    Let my assailants be put to shame;[e] may thy servant be glad!
29 May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
    may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle!
30 With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord;
    I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
    to save him from those who condemn him to death.

Psalm 109
RSVA

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