From a preacher’s perspective, you would think that embarking on a sermon series about the Psalms would be rich with possibilities for creative, lively and powerful preaching. And you’d be right about that – in truth, as I’m planning out pulpit time over the next several Sundays I find myself with such an abundance of uplifting materials, with so many psalms of praise and assurance and power from which to choose, I know I can’t possibly fit them into this particular series (of course, therein lies part of the fun of what I do – I can always come back later on and pick up on some of what I missed the first time!).
I’ll be honest, however; as I’ve reviewed the Book of Psalms, I’ve been reminded that praise and thanksgiving isn’t all that you find there, and not every Psalm can immediately be thought of as uplifting! To begin with, nearly a third of the 150 songs we have in this part of scripture can be considered to be “Psalms of Lament,” that is, songs that express deep and profound sorrow over the troubles of a people or of an individual, and which literally cry out for God’s intervention and blessing. Jesus himself, while hanging on the cross, drew from a Psalm of Lament, specifically Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Theologian Walter Brueggemann refers psalms such as these as Psalms of Disorientation, written during times of hurt, alienation, suffering, and loss when the writer(s) were confused, bewildered, and often angry to the point of rage.
There are also a few psalms that literally seemed to be fueled by rage: take Psalm 137, for example, which begins with the familiar verse, “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps.” (vs 1-2) Granted, given that these words of great lamentation are sung in the context of Israel having been exiled from their homeland for 70 years, with their homes pillaged and burned and their children slaughtered, there would be great emotion – nonetheless, it can’t prepare us to read the last verse of this Psalm to the Lord: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The thirst for vengeance you find here is appalling, and to say the least seems to fly in the face of our understanding of a just, loving God – and yet, there it is, right in the center of Holy Scripture.
Even some of the psalms that begin in a way we would consider to be prayerful and reverent move in this direction. One of my favorite examples is Psalm 139, which begins with these words: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away …You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (vs. 1-2, 5-6) I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve read that passage aloud in worship and in my own study of scripture – but to be honest, I wasn’t always aware that just a few verses later, the tone abruptly changes: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me …do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe them who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” (vs. 19, 21-22) (This one, at least, ends rather well, adding the caveat, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” [vs. 23])
Needless to say, this is decidedly not the stuff of warm and fuzzy preaching!
And yet, once again, there it is: part of our Bible, submitted by God for our consideration as to a life of faith. There is, of course, a great deal of historical and cultural context in these Psalms that we modern believers cannot ignore when we encounter these difficult passages; furthermore, biblical scholars and theologians are quick to remind us that there is a literary structure to many of the Psalms of Lament that, simply put, addresses human anger and grief and despair full on, but always circles back to God’s love and God’s desire for true justice to sustain us. That’s important to know, and the first thing we need to understand when approaching these psalms; but such knowledge doesn’t make them any easier to hear, nor any less difficult for us to accept as truth.
But I’ll be honest with you: I for one, am glad that they’re there.
I’m actually grateful that these very blunt, emotional and disturbing psalms are part of the biblical canon because they’re real. And they’re about us. As much as I really don’t want to confess it, all too often these are the psalms that speak for you and for me in our own times of spiritual disorientation; the horrible moments in our lives when we can do nothing else but cry out in despair, bewilderment and utter rage, wanting desperately for God to hear our cries and to answer. I’m glad to know that in the darkest of times, even when I feel wholly defeated and totally alone in the world that I’m not alone – these psalms give expression to the deepest emotions of our hearts; and they give us permission in such situations to give it all up to God, even the worst and most horrible of our human impulses.
What is it they say about confession being good for the soul? Lamentation has much the same benefit – it’s one way that God moves us from being buried in despair to being overwhelmed by hope; indeed, the journey itself is rough, but the destination at the end makes the struggle worth it.
That’s the wonder of scripture, friends, and another good reason to spend a summer day encountering the Psalms! So, truly, O God, search me and know my heart; “See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:24)
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry