A passion for justice

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, it’s hard to keep in mind the very real human beings that populate the stories. To be sure, they lived in another time and place, and had different ways of looking at the world. Still, they were people like you and me, who had similar emotions, wants, and needs.

This has been part of the challenge facing believers throughout the history of the church. On the one hand, we believe the church’s teaching that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. On the other hand, struggling to wrap our minds around this doctrine, we tend to emphasize one side of the paradox over the other.

When we fail to give full due to Jesus’ humanity, for example, we may create an overly calm Jesus who almost floats above the narrative, imperturbable. Oh, sure: he occasionally barked at the disciples, but just to teach them a lesson. He cleansed the temple, but his fury was staged in order to get people’s attention and make a point. He wasn’t really mad. He was… he was… righteously indignant.

I get it. But I’ll bet you a sack of denarii that if we could take a brain scan of Jesus at that tense moment in the temple, and lay it alongside that of someone who’s just lost their temper for some silly or selfish reason, we’d see pretty much the same thing. Thus, let’s not use the term “righteous indignation” to rescue ourselves from having to attribute anger — real human anger — to Jesus. He was mad.

But he was mad for the right reasons.

And perhaps, something similar could be said about our cursing psalmist.

. . .

Psalm 109, as we’ve seen, can be an embarrassing psalm to encounter. The psalmist doesn’t just cry out to God for help, he curses his enemy — and the curse goes on, and on, and on, dominating the middle of the psalm. He prays that his enemy would die an early death, leaving his wife a widow and his children orphaned. He prays that the family would be ruined financially, and that no one would help them. He prays that his family line would be wiped out and that no one would remember them (vss. 8-15).

And that’s not even the whole curse.

Awkward.

We prefer the loftier psalms of praise and adoration; now there’s something we can sing! We might even prefer other lament psalms, which give us the green light to complain to God (in private, at least) about all that we suffer. But the imprecatory or cursing psalms? They’re too earthy, too gritty, too mean-spirited. Surely no Christian should pray like that?

We’ll get to that question shortly. But let’s start by erasing from our minds the idea that the psalmist is having a hissy fit because somebody hurt his feelings. The psalmist’s enemy is described in such a way that the enemy is guilty of real injustice and wickedness, and the psalmist is praying for what he believes his enemy deserves.

Right from the beginning of the psalm, the enemies are portrayed as “wicked liars” (vs. 2, CEB). This is particularly important given that the context seems to be a court case; as it says in verse 7, “When the sentence is passed, let him be found guilty.” If this is so, then the psalmist’s enemies are not only guilty of fibbing or character assassination, but false witness.

That’s particularly important if the psalmist’s enemies are actually members of the community. There’s not much to go on here, but the psalmist describes his enemies as people whom he has loved (vss. 4-5). Indeed, the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of verse 4 even suggests that the psalmist has lovingly prayed for them. This makes the most sense if his enemies are actually some of God’s people. Not only is their behavior toward the psalmist undeserved (“they attack me for no reason,” vs. 3), it is deeply unjust (“They repay me evil for good, hatred in return for my love,” vs. 5), and not the way God’s people should treat one another.

Moreover, the enemy is described as one who “didn’t remember to demonstrate faithful love, but chased after the poor and needy — even the brokenhearted — with deadly intent” (vs. 16). “Faithful love” translates the Hebrew hesed, a word used most often in the Psalms to describe God’s steadfast, dependable love and mercy toward his people. It is used four times in this psalm alone. And as Walter Brueggemann argues, hesed may be the key that unlocks the psalm.

The enemy, as noted above, has not demonstrated hesed toward others. This is in stark contrast to God, who “stands right next to the needy” (vs. 31) in faithful love while the psalmist’s enemy does just the opposite, pursuing the needy to harm them. Because of this, the psalmist invokes the eye-for-an-eye kind of justice which characterized God’s law as he knew it. The psalmist’s enemy didn’t demonstrate faithful love, so he is cursed accordingly: “Let no one extend faithful love to him” (vs. 12).

Yes, the psalmist is mad. But he is not so much praying for personal vengeance as he is for justice — albeit a severe justice, one more familiar to the denizens of the Old Testament than to us. The lesson for us is that there is such a thing as being mad for the right reasons; rules of politeness shouldn’t quench a passion for justice.

Having said that, dare we pray in this way? Again, remember the story of the sons of Zebedee wanting to curse the Samaritans for their disrespect toward Jesus: the Master rebuked them, but didn’t send them away. God won’t reject us for losing our temper and cursing someone who’s offended us.

But it’s not what he wants us to do either. It’s not the way of Jesus.

More on that in the next post.

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