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And What About Those Angry Psalms? -- Psalm 109 (11th Sunday After Pentecost)

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

What are we to do with these angry psalms?

There is, of course, a clear and obvious option. We could ignore them. They are so angry, and so violent – we could just not read them in church, or at home, or ever.

We could just turn the page.

That is, basically, what we do as a default. You won’t hear Psalm 109 read often in church.... if ever. You won’t find it in the 3-year cycle of Scriptures suggested for Sunday mornings. And when anger and violence do show up in Psalms that are otherwise beautiful... “God you have searched you and me know me... I am fearfully and wonderfully made...” We stop reading before we get to the angry part. Or, we cut out those angry verses and stick to the prettier parts.

There are reasons for that... the world is full of violence enough. Naming violence in a sacred space can feel like giving that violence a bit more life. Isn’t this the space where we are “to seek peace and pursue it?”

But there are also costs for doing that – for just ignoring the angry psalms and their violence. We’ve said that the Psalms sing to and through the whole of life. In life, we know that it’s not healthy to ignore a whole range of emotion... to silence it... to repress it. It’s not likely healthy to ignore the violence of the world. It’s certainly not healthy – or just – to ignore the voices that cry out there.

We do have another option when it comes to the angry psalms. We could... carefully and thoughtfully, together, give them a listen... or just one. In a season when we are immersing ourselves in the Psalms – all the praise, all the lament, all the seeking – as we seek God in the whole of life – as we pray to God in the whole of life we could not skip over the angry psalms – not skip over that part of life. We could, together, give the angry psalms a long, loving look – and ask, Where might we see God at work... even here? The trouble is all too clear... But where’s the grace... even here?

If we are going to do that, we probably should say some first things to ground ourselves. First, I should clarify: anger and violence are not the same thing. Anger is an emotion – a response. Violence is an action. They can show up in the same place – violence can lead to anger, and violence can also be a reaction that flows from anger – one choice of many. But they are different. Anger is an emotion. Violence is an action.

And, we should say this: Scripture is full of violence. Let’s not pretend. Our sacred texts tell the stories of humanity journeying through the whole of life, including violence. And not just the Old Testament – with its war and slavery and captivity. The New Testament has as one of its central events crucifixion – state-sanctioned violence goaded on by religious authorities.

We do not and should not take that violence as normativeas the way the world should be – just because it’s in the Psalms, just because it’s in the Bible. We shouldn’t borrow the violence of their world and import it into our own. We don’t have to... our world is violent enough on its own.

We don’t and shouldn’t take the violence we find in Scripture as normative. We do, though, take it seriously. We take it seriously as a part of human experience – then and now. We listen to our siblings long ago for what they experienced in their world, and ask where do we see something like that in our own – and, ask, Where, where is God at work in all of that?

In this morning’s psalm, we can start by listening to the lament. Something horrible has happened, and the Psalmist is crying out. “O God, don’t be silent.” Wake up! Do you not see, do you not hear? I’m under attack. The wolves are prowling – they attack me with lying tongues. Friends have betrayed me. Come help me! The harm is real. The Psalmist is poor and needy, fading away like a shadow, the scorn of all who see them. They describe a world devoid of kindness, where cursing drowns out blessing. The lament is real.

And then, out of that lament, the Psalmist begins to rail – to rail against their enemies – and the Psalmist doesn’t play. The Psalmist shouts out what are called imprecationscurses on their enemies. This Psalm is one of a group of Psalms called imprecatory psalms: Even out this world, O God, by bringing upon my enemy the same calamity they have brought on me.[1]

· Accuse him, like he has accused me. He loves to curse, he wears curing like a garment. May those curses sink into his skin, may his garment of cursing choke his life.

· He never even thought of extending a kindness. May no one extend kindness to him, or to his children.

· He’s reduced me to abject poverty. May creditors seize all he has. May his children be driven from their homes.

· He has drained me even of my life. May his days be few, his children fatherless, and his wife a widow.

The imprecations are raw and intense.

Now, before we evaluate, assess, or judge – let’s pause for a moment, really listen, and take the life of the Psalmist seriously.

Think of the people taken into exile into Babylon. Their city burned to the ground. Their children enslaved. Their tormentors taunt them, asking them to sing songs of a homeland that now lies in rubble and ash.

Or, maybe think of the people of Ukraine for the past two years – as Russian bombs pound their cities. One parent flees with the children to keep them safe, now living as refugees, as the other parent stays behind to resist. Elders hide in the crumbling buildings – killed by random and not-so-random bullets and bombs.

Think of mothers and fathers at our border a few years ago – separated from their children by the government – parents to one detention camp – children to another – some not yet reunited.

Think back to Juneteenth, of the folks who lived in slavery – watching their children sold away, beaten, and killed – and the generations that have followed, suffering the latest iteration of American systemic racism.

The Psalmist cries out: May the things they have done to us now fall on them. May their children experience what ours have endured. May their loss be as deep and as painful as ours. May they know what this injustice feels like... in their bones. We know what it feels like in ours. Let them feel it in theirs.

If we skip over and ignore these angry psalms, we may miss the depth of the lament.

These psalms point us to the depth of human suffering in the world – and stir us up.

They also bring us into that fraught moment where anger can so easily spill over into more violence. They put before us – and point us to our own propensity for violence.

Now, let’s zoom out a bit. I’ve been talking about anger writ large – but let’s think for a bit about everyday anger – anywhere that these psalms might touch us in our everyday lives. The Transition Support Group recently finished reading Brené Brown’s latest book: Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Connection and the Language of Human Experience[2] – in which she encourages us to think more deeply and more specifically across the whole range of human emotion. To drill down.

Summarizing what researchers have found in their studies of anger, Brown describes anger as an emotion we feel when an expectation is thwarted – “when we believe there’s a violation of the way things should be.”[3] Anger is tricky. It can mask an underlying emotion more difficult to name. It might be connected to outrage at injustice – but it might be more about fear, or shame, or grief, or jealousy, or frustration.[4] Anger is what Brown calls an “action emotion” – “it makes us want to do something both when we feel it and when we are on the receiving end of it.”[5] And it’s powerful, it can “hijack our nervous system, our thoughts and our behavior.”

Brown also calls anger an “indicator” emotion. It’s like the indicator light in the car that tells us to pull over and check things out. It’s a catalyst: “Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick.”[6] Unchecked, it can fester, and calcify into contempt, disgust, and dehumanization – and it can spill over into violence. Anger and violence aren’t the same thing – but it’s all too easy for one to tumble over into the other. As one writer says, the trouble isn’t that the potential for violence is in the psalms, but rather that it’s there in us.[7]Anger can alert us to that perilous possibility.

And so we pull over. We create space for all this to be voiced and brought into awareness, and hope that – out in the open and understood – we can transform it into “something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”[8]

Psalm 109 brings us into that fraught moment when any of that is possible – that moment where the cycle of violence might churn on, or not – that moment where we are stirred, and ask, what shall we do?

Look at what the Psalmist does – it’s almost as startling to me as the Psalmist’s imprecations. In the middle of their raging, the Psalmist stops. Stops. And says this: But you O God. But you O God, my sovereign. Out of your goodness and your steadfast love – deliver me. The psalm (1) points us to the deep lament – (2) points us to our propensity for violence – and then stops – and (3) points us to God – and not just to God – to the goodness of God. But you O God. But you O God, my sovereign. Out of your goodness and your steadfast love – deliver me

Let me say what this is not. This is not glossing over either our anger or our violence. All that is out in the open – laid bare – still ringing in the air. What this is... is one option – one choice to turn – to turn to God – but not just to God – to the goodness of God.

And the goodness of God is not abstract – it is as visceral as all that has come before in this Psalm – perhaps best seen in the final verse. God – in God’s goodness and steadfast love – God stands with the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.

In the fraught peril of this moment, as anger seethes and violence lurks, the Psalmist turns to the one thing they know to be true. This is what the Psalms sing again and again. In the depths and in the heights, in slavery and freedom, exile and return, and every moment in between,

God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.

The Psalmist has made their complaint, and now holds all that before God with open hands. You sort this out God. The Psalmist takes and gives us the breath we need –

to be aware of and honest about our anger, and to say it plain,

to pause and think deeply what else might be going on,

to voice our own pain, and listen to the pain of others,

to consider and check our power,

to hold all that, and to turn from the anger,

from the potential for violence

toward the steady goodness of God,

ready to be transformed.

We go stand where God stands – we go and stand with the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.[9] We step out of our places of power and privilege and entitlement – and we go and stand there. We take our anger there; we take our potential for violence there; we take our experience of other people’s anger and violence there –

and we let God sort us out –

to deliver us from everything that does us harm –

and from every way that we do harm.

As the Psalms journey with us through the whole of life, when we get to these angry psalms – the imprecatory psalmswe don’t have to turn the page. That’s always a choice – but we also can pause and listen there – even there – in that part of life. We can look for true things –

as those psalms point us to the deep pain in the world,

as they point us to the peril of our propensity for violence,

as they point us – through all that – to seek the goodness of God,

God who is always standing there, in the place of deepest need,

willing the world toward healing,

toward justice,

toward peace.

Give thanks to God for God is good.

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] Examples of imprecatory psalms include Psalms 12, 58, 83, 94, 109, and 137, along with portions of other psalms. For background on imprecatory psalms generally and Psalm 109 specifically, see Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms Books 4-5 (Wisdom Commentary) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020), pp.191-200; Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.471-78); J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iv (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 1122-28. [2] Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Connection and the Language of Human Experience (Ney York, NY: Random House, 2021). [3] Id. p. 220. [4] Id. pp.220-24. [5] Id. [6] Id. pp. 224-25. [7] Quoted in McCann, p. 1127. [8] Brown, p.224. [9] Note the resonance with the Belhar Confession, which has at its heart the sense that God stands with the poor and the oppressed and the church’s duty is to stand where God stands. See

Photo credit: Nathan Duck, used with permission via Unsplash


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