First Do No Harm

Readings: Psalm 79; Micah 4:1-5; Revelation 15:1-8

Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;

Let your compassion come speedily to meet us,

For we are brought very low.

Help us, O God of our salvation

For the glory of your name…

Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors

The taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!

Then we your people, the flock of your pasture,

Will give thanks to you forever;

From generation to generation we will recount your praise. Psalm 79:8-9, 12-13

There’s no false piety in the psalms. Jealousy, rage, praise, fear, awe, love, compassion – the whole spectrum of human emotions is on display. A startling number of requests for smiting turns up, and quite a few peevish wishes for God to inflict humiliation and suffering on those who have crossed the people of God. Pleas for mercy and help are barely uttered before the “let them get theirs” words appear. It’s uncomfortable to read these vengeance requests sprinkled among the more acceptable praises of God and cries for mercy. Should I be asking God to harm anyone, even someone who has harmed me? It doesn’t feel right, and these bloodier and baser requests are often dropped when the psalm is read in church.

If these words make me feel uncomfortable, it’s probably because I’m expecting the psalms to be moral lessons in poetic meter. That’s not what the psalms are, and I misuse them if I justify wishing another harm because they are part of my sacred scripture. I also misuse them if I remove all the offensive parts, cutting verses out to leave only the happy and uplifting parts.

The psalms are cries to God; in times of joy, in the darkest of circumstances, in strength and weakness, the psalms give voice to my deepest feelings. Am I angry at the world for being unfair and God for not fixing it? There’s a psalm for that. Am I alone and in doubt? There’s one for that, too. Am I acutely aware of the Great Love that holds me? The psalms express my joy. Whatever is happening, there’s a psalm for that. It doesn’t mean that all my feelings and wishes are pure or acceptable – some of them aren’t. But God already knows what’s in my heart: I’m the one who needs the psalms to be honest with myself.

A very kind, wise professor once told me something I’ve never forgotten. While ancient Israel’s cries for God’s revenge and brutality against enemies may seem beneath any person or community of faith, they were also statements of great faith. The singers of the psalms didn’t take revenge. Instead, they handed over their worst and most hateful thoughts to God. Isn’t it better to hand vengeful and destructive impulses to God rather than act upon them?

God, take the worst of me into your embrace. It’s too awful for me to keep. Amen.

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