Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?



Psalm 109:

1Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;

2For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

3They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.

4For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.

5And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

6Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.

7When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.

8Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

9Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

11Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.

12Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

14Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

15Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.

16Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

17As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.

18As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.

19Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.

20Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.

21But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.

22For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

23I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.

24My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.

25I became also a reproach unto them: when they looked upon me they shaked their heads.

26Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy:

27That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, LORD, hast done it.

28Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.

29Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.

30I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.

31For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.

I would say, in the beginning, that this is a "difficult" psalm for worship, because it refers throughout to an individual. There is little room here for the collective voice, the corporate spirit of the body of believers. That's not an insurmountable obstacle, of course. Psalm 22 is in the first person, too, as is Psalm 23. And really, it isn't the personal narrative of the Psalm, it's the call for retribution; the same problem that keeps Psalm 137 from being heard regularly in worship, even though almost everyone knows the first six verses:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
We generally cut if off after that, and for good reason. It's not a universal psalm; it's a psalm of Exile, a lament of the homeless, but "home" here means, not a dwelling or a fixed abode, but an entire country. In that context, the desire for brutal vengeance is understandable, if still shocking. Out of that context, well....

But take Psalm 109 a few verses at a time, and notice the logic of its narrative:

1Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;

2For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

3They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.

4For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.

5And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

6Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.
The wicked man has beset the psalmist, and despite showing love and good, the psalmist has been paid with evil. So what does he ask for, except that the evil man be paid in like coin? Not a remarkable sentiment, but not exactly a vengeful one, either. What the psalm asks for is justice, and while Christians understand the plea for justice to be one that falls on the just and the unjust alike, it's still not an un-Christian sentiment to turn to God and ask for it, especially in the name of the poor.

7When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.

8Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

9Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

11Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.

12Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

14Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

15Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Now that's pretty clearly the "difficult" part, and while C .S. Lewis and St. Augustine might prefer more metaphorical, and thus "theological," interpretations, that won't do. For one thing, I still remember the first lesson I learned in seminary, from the first day of my first class in studies of the Hebrew Scriptures. The professor, the dean of the school, announced that the scriptures we were about to study were not written as a prelude to the Christian scriptures of the "New Testament," and shouldn't be understood that way. It was an invaluable lesson, and obviously one I've never forgotten. This stands several centuries of Christian exegesis on its head, but it also undermines (and underscores) the hoary seminary joke about exegesis bringing "extra-Jesus" to the scriptures. So let's take the words of the Psalm at face value and in context, and try not to import, any more than necessary, an outside frame of reference (and certainly one as foreign as Christianity would have been to the original psalmist) into them.

What these words ask for is obliteration, the removal of the wicked from the earth. And really, who can argue with that? The argument with this call is almost entirely Christian (which does not negate it; but in fairness, this argument must be held in abeyance for a moment): such an obliteration would wipe out all, since in Christian humility all have sinned and fallen short. But that is Augustine's theology, from the 4th century. Already we are engaging anachronism to apply it retroactively to words that couldn't possibly presume Augustine's Platonic Christianity. Set aside that frame, and the words become less remarkable, or notable only for their seeming vitriol. But we already know the sin of this person who should be condemned, and the claim by the psalmist is not entirely personal (although it is the psalmist who has been beset):

6Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

17As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.

18As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.

19Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.
What is being asked for is the reward for evil, a reward brought on not by the curse of the psalmist, but by the actions of the condemned. And notice what this person has done; he has persecuted the poor and needy man, and "he might even slay the broken in heart." This is a man who "remembered not to show mercy." And this violation is not upon the psalmist, but against the covenant. The right understanding of these words is not that an individual seeks vengeance, but that a member of the group seeks to preserve the order of the community. As Krister Stendahl put it:

It is pointed out that for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.
That "covenant relationship" is not between me and God, but between the nation (understood as a familial or tribal relationship, not in the post-19th century geo-political sense) and God. As a member of that nation, it is the responsibility of all to uphold the covenant. Think of the inverse of Abraham's famous argument with God: if only 10 people are found to be just in Sodom and Gomorrah (where the sin was failing to show hospitality, not homosexual acts), then surely the cities should be spared. This is not, in other words, collective guilt, but a sense of collective responsibility. The evil man has defied the basic rules of the covenant. Of course he should be expunged from the community; not to keep it pure and holy, but to establish basic justice. By the same token we all want to see the criminal punished, if only to establish that crimes against society (i.e., other persons) cannot be allowed, lest all order and justice decay into chaos and anarchy.

The nature of the punishment, of course, is still the central issue. I'm not trying to re-write this Psalm, even as I try to understand it.

The Psalmist goes on to make this attack by the evil man a personal one, again. But no attack by an evil person is ever without impact on someone; all evil is ultimately personal to some victim:
20Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.

21But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.

22For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

23I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.

24My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.

25I became also a reproach unto them: when they looked upon me they shaked their heads.
That last line is perhaps the most telling. How do you become a reproach to someone, if you are not also, in some measure, their responsibility? And how do you become their responsibility? Who, as the lawyer asked Jesus, is my neighbor? The answer under the covenant was clear. The answer given by Jesus, is equally clear, if somewhat broader; or at least less open to limitation. But here also is a person about to be obliterated, and what justice exists in that? Even Job's life was not taken from him; surely the psalmist is justified in asking that he be spared, as he is faithful, and that the wicked be removed, as that is all they deserve. And included in this prayer for vengeance, is a prayer for salvation:

26Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy:

27That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, LORD, hast done it.

28Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.

29Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.

30I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.

31For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.
A prayer not all that distant from the concluding verses of Psalm 22, a psalm which gets heard in many churches during Holy Week.

There is the issue of sin in this psalm. Our modern understanding of the term is complex (to say the least), but it is also almost entirely the product of Augustine's Confessions; which is to say it is not at all the understanding that a pre-Christian, and more particularly pre-Augustinian, psalmist would have. What Krister Stendahl wrote about interpretations of Paul equally applies here:

...it is exactly at this point that Western interpreters have found the common denominator between Paul and the experience of man, since Paul's statements about 'justification by faith' have been hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection. Especially in Protestant Christianity--which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and in the piety of the Middle Ages--the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther's struggle with his conscience. But it is exactly at that point that we can discern the most dramatic difference between Luther and Paul, between the 16th and the 1st century....
And, of course, the even more dramatic difference between Paul in the 1st century, and the Psalmist, in another country, another age, concerned with other problems than the conversion of the Gentiles.

It's the opening that intrigues me: "Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;" It seems to me a gentler form of this cry from Isaiah:

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
A familiar sentiment at Advent, it turns out. It's the plea to God that is most interesting to me, because it sets this call apart from a mere cry for vengeance. This is a cry for justice from the author of justice, and yes, the person calling for it is not disinterested in the outcome, but who among us could be, and call the result, or the demand for it, justice?

So after all that wandering through the lines, where do I come down on this? I agree with Stephen Chapman of Duke University: "Imprecatory prayers were meant to remind the faithful of the covenant they held with God and the consequences that would follow if that covenant was broken." Although I have to say I made it all the way through seminary with ever learning the term "imprecatory prayers," and I don't put much stock, as a theologian, in the concept of categories of prayer. I understand it's use as a scholarly or even literary term, or a term of Biblical studies; but I don't understand the categorizing of any prayer made sincerely. Maybe it's the Pietist in me.

What of the psalm itself? What is a Christian reading of it? Well, you have to begin with the context of the prayer, which is the covenant with Israel. Misunderstand that, and you misunderstand the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures. Even the term "Old Testament" used to pay homage to that concept, if only slightingly. Put the psalm back in that context, and what do you have? A prayer for God to do justice. But Christianity reminds us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and any prayer for justice is a prayer against the interests of the one praying, as well as against those the "imprecation" is called down on. Ultimately this is still, in a Christian sense at least, a prayer of humility: the imprecation called for is pressed upon God. For Christians, it is a prayer offered like any prayer: in the context of "the Lord's prayer." So whenever we ask that a sinner be punished, we ask that we be punished, too. "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." You can pray this psalm as a Christian, so long as you end with those words; so long as you keep those goals in mind; so long as you remind yourself your anger can be taken to God as well as your praise, but God is not you, and you are not God. This prayer asks for justice; so does the prayer of Our Savior. This prayer asks for God to rule; so does the prayer of Our Savior. This prayer asks that the poor be saved. So does the prayer of Our Savior. And both prayers remind us: be careful what you pray for; because you might get it.

If we remember that, there is no evil in this prayer, and no room to offer it as an "imprecation" against Barack Obama, or anyone else, because we realize we do not stand outside a charmed circle, or inside one, and what we asked for is always visited upon us first. Are prayers of imprecation, then, Christian? Only if they are prayers that begin with "God have mercy on me, a sinner." Any Christian prayer that does not begin there, cannot truly be said to be a prayer.

IMHO, anyway.

There's a Biblical warrant for that humility, too; warrant that pre-dates the Gospels. Psalm 19:14:

14Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
Which is why it helps to read the whole, and not just the parts.

Amen.

Inconclusive unscientific postscript: Southern Beale (via Bouphonia) finds the source of the original "prayer", and makes the point for both of us.

1 Comments:

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