10 Oct 2017

Extreme Suffering, Extreme Prayer: Listening to Psalm 109

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apologetics, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Prayer, Psalms, Suffering

Reading through the Psalms is an exhilarating experience. We join our Spiritual ancestors in lifting our hands to God in loving praise.  We relish images of the Lord as our Shepherd and being covered in the shelter of his wings. We are drawn the thirsting for the Presence of God. We find ourselves in awe of the Ways of the Lord.

But for the uninitiated, the Psalms also startle us and perhaps even shock us. It does not take long in the Psalms to encounter the cries of the broken hearted or the lament of the crushed.  And as we push our way into the Psalter we encounter anger.  It is not just any anger. Rather we find ourselves with raw anger.  For some modern believers these psalms are proof of the inferior nature of the “Old Testament.”  In this blog we will meditate upon one of the most difficult of all the “anger” Psalms for many, Psalm 109.

Listening to Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is raw power. It is rage thrown in our face. Psalm 109 will rattle our “piety cage.” It is an  imprecatory psalm, that is a psalm that is a “cursing” psalm as some call it. But we have to ask ourselves if we have made an effort to understand not only Psalm 109, but the imprecatory psalms as a whole.  Did they make it into the Bible by accident?

So to begin, I want to share one thought that lies at the bottom of the psalm.  It is the bedrock conviction of the psalm and explains the hotness of the language:

Yahweh is on the side of the oppressed!

If we do not grasp the depth of this conviction then we will not only never apprehend Psalm 109 but quite a few other biblical texts. The biblical God is a God of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Justice, Mercy, Faithfulness are deeply interrelated in Scripture and Jesus himself states they are the “weightier matters of the torah” (Matt 23.23).  The prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, etc all say the God of Israel will always side with the Oppressed, let the Oppressor be warned. Those who are God’s people will also be on the side of the Oppressed, lest they collude with the Oppressor. As David Lipscomb once wrote, “the poor, as a class, constitute the elect of God.” Psalm 109 is rooted squarely in this Spirituality.

The Bedrock of Psalm 109’s Spirituality

Psalm 109 is what I call “getting down with God about what is wrong and messed in the world.” It is a Psalm that makes Victorians squirm in their seat, and wonder if it made it into the Bible by mistake. It will make some Restorationists secretly thank God it is in the “Old Testament” (bc we know it was nailed to the cross – such a fallacious claim) etc. I speak in jest but these sentiments I have heard in one fashion or another many times.

The psalm is clearly the voice of a person that is oppressed. It is the voice of the “poor and needy” (v.22). The person is under extreme suffering and offers an extreme prayer.  The status of the person evokes the cries of all the who are extremely powerless in this world, slaves for example.

In fact the central appeal to Yahweh in Psalm 109 contains petitions that are based upon, and grounded in, the Exodus narrative (Ex 1.8-22; 2.23-24). That is the paradigmatic moment when Yahweh rescued the poor and needy ones (literal Israelite slaves) and proved God is always on the side of the Oppressed.

The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham … God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Ex 2.23-24)

Exodus does not say the Israelite slaves cried out to Yahweh.  It merely says they “cried out.”  But it was God who noticed the extreme suffering of the poor and the powerless.  God “took notice of them.” As Psalm 72 has the king and the congregation confess,

For he [Yahweh] delivers the needy
when they call,
the poor and those who have
no helper.
He has pity on the weak
and the needy.
From oppression and violence
he redeems their life;
and costly is their life (or
their lives are precious to him)
(Psalm 72.12-14, my translation but see the TEV/GNB)

Or as 109.31 puts it,

he [Yahweh] stands at the right hand
of the needy,
to save them from those who
would condemn them to death.”

This is the bedrock of Psalm 109.

Looking at the Text Closely

This poor and needy person looks to Yahweh because God is near the suffering.  Using terminology from Exodus this extreme prayer asks God to …

deal” (‘asah) v.21, “deal on my behalf for your name’s sake

save” (nasal) v. 21 “because of your hesed is good, save me

help” (‘azar) v.26 “help me, O Yahweh my God!

save” (yasa) v.26 “save me according to your hesed

The appeal here is rooted in the promise that Israel’s God is so powerfully and utterly on the side of the poor and needy (see Pss 72 and 82). Extreme prayer is based on the Gospel of the Exodus.

The Tormentor is another Pharaoh, an Anti-Yahweh

The psalmist is not simply having a bad day. He or she is in a living hell. There is an oppressor sucking the life our of one who has no power to oppose the one in power. Everything Yahweh is, this enemy is not. The oppressor is a tormentor. He

did not remember to show KINDNESS/hesed
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death” (v.16)

This is the crux of the Psalm. The crime of being an “Anti-Yahweh” is the oppressor’s guilt. Anti-Yahwehism is manifested in how one dares to treat “the least of these.” The oppressor has become a mini-Pharaoh in his dealings with the poor and powerless around him. The oppressor has made himself the enemy of the God of Israel. This was his doing not Yahweh’s. But Yahweh will do to this mini-Pharaoh what he did to the Egyptian, because God is on the side of the powerless.

Even as the poor and needy one actually prayed on behalf of the tormentor he/she received evil in return,

In return for my love they accuse me
even while I pray for them.
So they reward me evil for good
and hatred for my love
.” (v.4-5).

He/she has been slandered, lied about, hated, etc (cf. v.4f). So the poor oppressed one cries out for justice, just as do the martyrs in the very presence of God (Rev 6.6-11).

This is not, as it is so crudely sometimes assumed, some personal vendetta or seeking personal revenge. In fact the Psalmist does not raise a hand against the tormentor. Rather judgment is left wholly in the hands of the God of Hesed.

Let them know that it is your hand,
that you, O LORD, have done it.
They may curse but you will bless;
when they attack they will be put to shame” (v.27-28).

Vengeance belongs to God, that is a Hebrew Bible teaching not an invention of Jesus. The Torah states quite vividly, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deut 32.35).

Not My Words But … Ours

As I reflect I realize this is not my psalm. But honestly, I have felt like him or her before. What I get from the psalm is that he or she submits and surrenders their justified, legitimate, anger to the God of the Poor. Anger is given to God. Anger it is not acted out on the tormentor. Justice is not taken out of God’s hands to dish out.

Some believe we should never be so angry, and certainly not this angry. But what if we are that angry?  We do not live in a perfect world. We live in a Fallen World. And so we do have such feelings – and if you have not you will one day.

There are in fact happenings in this age devoid of the Father’s will that do elicit such cries as we find in Psalm 109. This is not about getting cut off in line at Wal-Mart.

But even if this is not our psalm, we know of people for whom it does belong. Who can we pray for?

  • Saints in Afghanistan
  • Saints in Sudan
  • Women abducted in the human sex slave traffic
  • Think of the Rachael’s who refuse to be comforted.
  • How about those whose entire life snuffed out by the principalities and powers who use human entities unaware?
  • How about the one who has been falsely accused and incarcerated for 35 years only to find out the police and district attorney purposefully suppressed evidence that proved innocence?

Psalm 109 belongs to such as these.  They can pray this extreme prayer.

Final Thoughts on Extreme Prayer in Extreme Suffering

Do we dare to pray on their behalf? I think that is why the Holy Spirit put it in the Bible in the first place. What the oppressor did not have, God’s people do. That is hesedHesed demands that I/we have solidarity with these people. Therefore we do in fact pray even this prayer on their behalf.

Not everyone in ancient Israel, in fact most did not, experience the occasion of Psalm 109. But the psalm was inspired, and preserved by the Holy Spirit, and was used in corporate worship. Why? Because the people of God are supposed to have the heart of God for the Oppressed. Psalm 109 is nothing but a passionate cry for,

I cannot recommend Erich Zenger’s work on the imprecatory psalms enough. This is a must read.

Your kingdom come, your will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.”

Interestingly enough Psalm 109 is quoted directly five times in the NT and is alluded to and echoed several more times.

Just a few thoughts on a text that I actually love more and more as I understand how central God’s righteousness and justice is to the kingdom of God.

Psalm 109 is an extreme prayer offered by one in extreme suffering.  The Holy Spirit calls on the people of God to extremely intercede for those who suffer under the extreme duress of the injustice of this fallen age. Such prayer hastens the day when shalom will cover the face of the sea and the meek will inherit the earth.

Shalom.

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