Psalms: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Experiencing all of the emotions
By Rebecca Lister
A friends and I have been meeting regularly to pray, share, laugh and read. We decided to try reading the Psalms together, underlining certain verses or phrases that reach out to us, wondering at their sheer beauty and insight. Before we began, we discussed the fact that, while no one can sing praise like the Psalmists, no one can curse like them either. For example, the speaker of Psalm 58 (NIV) has some fairly strong words for those who rule unjustly:
Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
8May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.
A slug? Breaking their teeth? What about all that love that Jesus talks about? What about “praying for your enemies”? And what about Psalm 109 (NIV) — here, the Psalmist presents a detailed list of what God should do to the enemy:
Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
1May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
I certainly don’t see any “turning the other cheek” in this one. Jesus would definitely not approve of this, right? So, what do we do with these Psalms?
According to Ellen F. Davis in her book Getting Involved With God, the church through the years has soft-pedaled these Psalms and have either reduced their appearance in the Sunday lectionary or included expurgated versions of them. We tend to feel uncomfortable around such boldly-articulated anger. Perhaps we even wonder if we should speak to God in such a bitter, disrespectful tone. The temptation instead is to “Disney-fy” the Bible, to pretend that such passages do not exist, to erase and deny that sometimes, our thoughts are far from pure.
To sanitize the Bible in this way does not benefit us in the end, for we are a people of complex emotions. Davis beautifully explains that,
…by clapping our hand over the psalmist’s mouth…we lose something the Bible intends us to have. By refusing to listen to that anger and even take it on our lips, we lose an opportunity to bring our own anger into the context of our relationship with God. The cursing psalms are in fact a crucial resource for our spiritual growth, indispensable if we are to come before God with rigorous honesty. They are necessary not only for our individual spiritual health but also for maintaining or restoring the health of the church. (Getting Involved With God, p. 24-25)
We cannot, and should not, water down the Psalms by reducing them to only positive, rosy little nuggets. What is amazing to realize is that our God wants us to speak openly, and wants us to present ourselves and our emotions—all of them—in a genuine, frank manner. Our God does not need us to censor ourselves, for God knows our thoughts before they even appear on our lips. More importantly, God cares what our thoughts are. Real relationships are about real emotions, real thoughts, real feelings, in their dazzling and confusing array, and like leaching venom from a wound, praying the Psalms frees and heals us, trusting that God will actually do something with our pain.
Perhaps the most critical piece of proof that the Psalms matter in our prayer life is the fact that Jesus’s last words (according to the gospels of Mark and Matthew) were from one of the most heart-wrenching laments ever written, Psalm 22 (NIV):
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
So, it would seem that Jesus knew of this powerful Psalm, knew it well enough to quote its first verse during the most agonizing moment of his life. The imagery found in this Psalm expressed the depth of Jesus’s despair, explaining in grotesque detail how every bone in his body is dislocated (22:14), his heart is a molten ball of wax (22:14), his ribs are poking through his skin (22:17), and he is surrounded by enemies (22:16).
Yet, that is not all. That is not the end, and Jesus knew this too, for while much of the imagery in this Psalm is disturbing, it concludes with these radiant words:
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
The Psalms are an amazing gift for us, for we can know that our God is one who wants us to communicate our true thoughts in prayer. We do not have to make ourselves presentable, or to pretend we are better than we are — -for in Jesus Christ, God was not only Immanuel, “with us,” but God was us. Through Jesus, God truly has done it!
Rebecca Lister is an associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Her passion is music and worship in churches. She is a student in the on-line program of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and is an Inquirer in the Carlisle Presbytery.