We interrupt this praise

Christians are supposed to be polite people, right? Nice people. In some congregations, we live according to an implicit rule that real Christians — at least the more “spiritual” ones — don’t show negative emotion. We may have been having a screaming match on the way to church, but once we park the car and open the doors, everyone knows they’re supposed to be on their best behavior.

Heaven forbid that anyone think we actually get mad at each other. What would they say?

Our worship services follow something of the same rule. We take psalms of praise, set them to music, and sing them with warm hearts and upraised hands. Now is the time for good feelings and positivity. We’ll make room as needed for people to bring negative emotions like grief — but anger? Hatred?

I’m willing to bet that you’ve never sung the following words in church, taken straight from Psalm 139:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
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
. (vss. 19-22, NRSV)

And that’s in the middle of one of the most beautiful poems of praise in the Psalter.

. . .

“O that you would kill the wicked!” We dealt with something similar in Psalm 104, a psalm celebrating creation and its Creator. There, the psalmist paints a stunning cosmic portrait of God, but also details how God lovingly sustains humanity and the rest of his creatures. “May my meditation be pleasing to him,” writes the psalmist, “for I rejoice in the LORD. …Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 104:34, 35b).

The psalmist thus offers his work to God, hoping it will please him. The words are of joy, blessing, and praise. And then, right in the middle of all that positivity, we get this: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more” (Ps 104:35a).

That’s it. Just the one sentence. But it’s jarring enough.

And Psalm 139 goes even further.

As I suggested in a previous post, we might think of the statement in Psalm 104 as expressing something like the horror one might experience if they saw something magnificent being defaced, like the Grand Canyon being filled with piles of putrefying trash, or some vandal drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Something similar could be said of Psalm 139. Both psalms, in their own way, celebrate creation. In Psalm 104, the flip side of the psalmist’s worshipful wonder is horror at whatever spoils the perfection of God’s created order. In Psalm 139, the flip side of the psalmist’s love of God is the hatred of God’s enemies. And in both cases, the poet asks God to fix the problem by removing the wicked from the picture.

What makes the words of Psalm 139 more disturbing, however, is that the psalmist seems to give free rein to hatred and loathing. You’re not supposed to say such things in polite company. And..ahem…didn’t Jesus teach that we’re supposed to love our enemies instead?

Yes.

But let’s not miss the context of these troublesome words. Listen to how the psalm begins and ends:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. …
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Ps 139:1, 23-24)

The psalm, as we will see in upcoming posts, celebrates an intimate relationship with God in which the psalmist has been fully known since before birth. “You have searched me and known me,” the poem begins; God has examined the psalmist to the core and knows all there is to know. The psalm then comes full circle at the end (as psalms often do). The same language now becomes a petition: Search me, know me; scrutinize everything in every corner of my being.

And why? Because the psalmist wants the life laid out in Psalm 1. Note the familiar contrast between the two ways one can live, here characterized as the “wicked way” and the “way everlasting,” that is, the way of righteousness through following God’s instruction.

In being so bold with the language of hatred, the psalmist seems confident of passing the test: Search me, God, but you won’t find anything. Is that arrogance? Naivete? Perhaps. But what matters is how the poet would respond if God did find something: would the response be denial and defensiveness, or contrition and repentance?

With the kind of intimacy described in Psalm 139, I’m betting on the latter.

Could we say the same? We’ll consider the possibilities in the next post.

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