March 19, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

What to do about the cursing in the psalms

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about the psalms of lament. I can’t finish writing about them without saying something about the cursing that is part of many of them.

The cursing can pop up in unexpected places. Psalm 139, for example, one of my favorites, says that God knows me no matter where I might be, that, “Truly you have formed my inmost being,” and, “Your eyes have seen my actions; in your book they are all written.”

But then, in verse 19, it suddenly changes: “If only you would destroy the wicked, O God.” Verse 21 says, “Do not I hate, O Lord, those who hate you?” And verse 22: “With a deadly hatred, I hate them; they are my enemies.”

Psalm 54 is a prayer for help. Verse 6 says, “Behold, God is my helper; the Lord sustains my life.” But that’s followed with this in verse 7: “Turn back the evil upon my foes; in your faithfulness destroy them.”

Or Psalm 149, an invitation to glorify the Lord, says, in verse 5 and the first half of verse 6, “Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy upon their couches. Let the high praises of God be in their throats.” But that’s followed up with, “And let

two-edged swords be in their hands: to execute vengeance on the nations, punishment on the peoples.”

Psalm 18 is a long psalm of thanksgiving to God. But while praising God for his help in battle, the psalmist recounts how he pursued and killed his foes, having no mercy on them even when they cried to the Lord.

Psalms 58 and 109 are the most clear of the cursing psalms. Psalm 58 is a curse against unjust judges, saying among other things, “O God, smash their teeth in their mouths; the jaw-teeth of the lions, break, O Lord!” Later, it says, “The just man shall be glad when he sees vengeance; he shall bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

Psalm 109 is a curse against an enemy who has slandered the psalmist. The curses continue for a dozen verses. Among them are these: “May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. May his children be roaming vagrants and beggars; may they be cast out of the ruins of their homes.”

What do we do about these psalms? I take my cue from the Church. I simply don’t pray the offending verses; I skip over them. I pray the psalms with which I am comfortable.

Someone who prays the entire Liturgy of the Hours over a four-week period will pray at least parts of 147 psalms. They will not pray Psalms 58, 83 and 109. Psalm 139 is included, but it skips verses 19 to 22. When Psalm 54 is prayed, verse 7 is skipped.

However, some of the cursing psalms are included in the Liturgy of the Hours, including the offending verses in Psalms 18 and 149. But that doesn’t mean that I have to pray them. †

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