How does the church help people to read the difficult parts of the Psalms? I come from a church tradition which regularly has 3 (or 4) Bible readings every Sunday in church – but many of the more difficult texts never come up for reading in church, and consequently are never preached on, as they’re omitted by the lectionary as unsuitable. Of course, the same problem can easily occur without a lectionary. At my previous church, the preacher selected the readings each week – but this resulted in a smaller selection of readings than if we’d used the lectionary. We ended up in effect with a much smaller Bible – a mini-canon within the canon. If we’re serious about wanting to encourage everyone to read the Bible at home, then I don’t think we do people any favours by neglecting to preach from the parts of the Bible that are more problematic, but leave them to struggle by themselves with – or give up on – these difficult passages.
In a paper at Otago that I’m sitting in on, we were asked to take either Psalm 58 or Psalm 137, both of which have harsh cries for vengeance, and work out if/how we would use these in worship, if we would preach on them and what we would say. In the Anglican prayer-book the Psalms for congregational reading go from Psalm 57 to Psalm 59 – Psalm 58 was censored, and the offending verses from Psalm 137 are replaced by a few asterisks (reminiscent of the way that a cartoon character speaks in asterisks when something’s dropped on their foot!). When I read Psalm 58 I was repulsed by the violent imagery, and it didn’t appeal as the text for a sermon.
Knowing that Jesus prayed for his enemies as he was dying, and teaches us to do the same, what do we do with these prayers of vengeance in these Psalms? Won’t they tempt us to see ourselves as righteous and others as wicked, forgetting that we are sinners and that they are also those who God loves and for whom Christ died? But, as I reflected on this Psalm, I realised that it has much to offer us. The Psalm provides a sobering opportunity to ask ourselves who may see us as unjust, and cry out to God – the people who make our cheap goods from overseas or whose slavery we support when we buy chocolate or coffee; the people who work for us; the people who see us as benefitting from unjust land confiscations from their families in the past; the people whose children starve while we have too much. Reading this Psalm also raises the question of what legitimate place, if any, feelings of anger, indignation, jealousy and even violent outrage have in the heart of the Christian. What do we get angry about? We can sometimes be angered by a personal affront, but be more philosophical about sin and injustice, especially when we don’t ourselves bear the brunt of it.
C.S. Lewis wrote: “the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that . . . is hateful to God.” Then there is the question of what do we do with our anger. Do we take it to God as the Psalmist did? According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalm 58 is the key to understanding the whole Book of Psalms as the Book of Christ. The Psalms for vengeance are fulfilled in the crucified Lord, who bore the punishment for sin. How much poorer is the church when we only preach on the “polite” Psalms?
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Andrea McDougall is an Anglican priest who is currently studying at Otago University for a PhD on Karl Barth’s theology of humility.