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Psalms of lament 7 July St Mary’s

Hosea 11.8-9; Matt 5.43-48; Psalm 109


The first in a series of sermons on Psalms

                                                Revd Dr Jan van der Lely

The psalms contain all human emotion, good and bad, expressed openly and without shame. In that way they are models of prayer, because we deceive ourselves if we think God only listens to our words and not our thoughts. We may as well be honest with God.  Tonight we are thinking about Psalms that express negative emotions. And often the best way of dealing with unacceptable emotions is to express them in a harmless way - prayer would be one example!

One of the emotional states expressed in the psalms is a need for vengeance, or retaliation. This is part of normal human feelings, and although it is expressed in shocking and graphic ways in some psalms, (eg Ps 137) the psalms tell it like it is, with us humans - it is perfectly possible to worship God and then go out and curse our neighbour for ...  spraying Roundup too close to our rose bushes.

Why do we have such a strong instinct for revenge or retaliation? Because of our inbuilt sense of justice, which is linked to the nature of God. In its best form, it is a divine attribute.

I chose Psalm 109 for tonight because it goes over the top, it is vivid and venomous in its demands for revenge as well as in its misery and lament. (v 22-23). He enumerates all the curses on him from his enemies- v7-12 etc -and then turns them back against the enemies (v19) - ‘thus may the Lord repay my accusers’ - may they suffer the same curses in their own lives. He asks God to hit them back just as they have tried to hurt him.

Why all the detail? Because it is cathartic. It gets a load off his mind and out of his system. Rage is energy - and that needs to go somewhere. He works it off by reflecting back the string of curses to his enemies. At the end he is able to calm down and speak more quietly to God - v20. The energy has run out, he is exhausted and feels helpless. Now he is in a better state to really pray. ‘Help me O Lord my God. Save me for your loving mercy’s sake’.

Now if the thought of vengeance disturbs you, note that what is happening in this prayer is verbal only. It is a hyperbolic (highly exaggerated) verbal assault. It is not an act of vengeance. Indeed this prayer may make an act unnecessary. Once all that rage is worked off, he may be able to stop himself acting on it.

Also notice that all these violent words are addressed to God, not to the enemy. It’s the place to take uncontrollable violent feelings. They are not going to destroy God but they could destroy me, and they will certainly make my problem with this other person a lot worse. I had better work them off in prayer than in any other way. This frees me to leave acts of vengeance to God, that is, to patiently await for evil acts to be shown up as such, to go wrong and bring suffering in their wake.

Once the rage has worked itself out, the psalmist is then able to change his perspective. From vs 20 he is looking at God; before that he was looking at the enemy with hatred and pain; now he turns to God. He has accepted and owned his rage, confessed it, offered it to God and handed it over. Now he is free to be open about how terrible he feels, how awful it is to be the target of others’ hatred. And he ends the psalm with trust  - v29 ’I will give thanks...he has stood at the right hand of the needy’ - past tense, indicating that he is speaking in faith that God will right all wrongs.

So I wonder what God thinks about this prayer for vengeance? Will he hear this prayer?

Scripture is clear that vengeance is for God to deal with, not us. This is stated repeatedly in the Old and New Testaments. ‘Vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay’. This liberates us: we don’t need to trouble about retaliation, it is built in to Gods system and plans. Leave it in God’s hands.

OK, but how can a God of compassion be vengeful?

It’s the other side of the coin. Having compassion on those who suffer means judging oppressors. Liberating his people means bringing defeat on others. Gain and loss are two sides of a  coin. We see this in Hosea, where God is as it were talking to himself and thinking over what he can do. It is his own lament at an impossible situation. Strict justice means punishment and defeat for Israel. God’s fierce anger at their betrayal, as they again and again worship the other gods, demands punishment. But God chooses instead compassion - ‘my heart recoils within me. my compassion grows warm and tender.’ Hosea above other OT books, uses maternal images of God. ‘I will not come in wrath’. But quite often in the OT we read that God did express wrath, and usually the bad things that happened to Israel were interpreted as payback time for their unfaithfulness to God. Why did people have to see it that way?

Think about how criminal justice works in this country today. We try very hard to make sure we have the right person, who really committed the crime. Then we impose a punishment. We take it out of the hands of the victims since their judgment is clouded by pain. We give the decisions to an objective judge and jury. And we do try to build in aspects of rehabilitation. But society, you and me, do need justice to be done, we need criminals to suffer in some way proportionately for their wrongdoing. Of course our system is far from perfect but the principles are right. Our sense of rightness demands retaliation to the offender and compensation to the victim. If this works well, one will feel better and the other will feel worse.

So with God’s justice. God is not neutral or indifferent to evil. the Bible speaks of a moral order which reflects God’s character, in which God upholds the right and good, and in which God is ultimately the only judge. God judges justly without partiality or bribe, unlike human judges who are imperfect.  That’s why we must entrust our retaliation to him.

When we turn to the New Testament, of course, we find that love is recommended instead of vengeance. ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him’. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ How can we possibly reach this position from the psalm where enemies are cursed back?

The answer is: Through the cross. There God dealt decisively with all evil. How did he do that? By punishing us? By beating up all the bad guys? No. By getting into the thick of human wickedness, and becoming a victim, letting us do our worst to him. By refusing to hit back. Then by rising from the dead and showing that evil was powerless over him.

That’s why we need to leave our vengeance to God. Spill it out by all means. All the rage and pain. Blast God with it. Use the psalms -  then leave it there. Trust God with it. He’s the one who knows what to do with it. He can use even love to defeat evil.