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Praying the Difficult Psalms

Pastor Nick McRae gives advice on how to pray the Psalms that aren't very easy to pray:

I didn’t always love the Psalms. Not at all. For a long time I even avoided the Psalms because, honestly, I didn’t know what to do with them. Maybe you’ve been there, too. Maybe you’re there right now.

I really struggled with the Psalms. Any given psalm I’d read might be absolutely beautiful, but then suddenly, out of nowhere, it would take a disturbing turn. Psalm 139 is a perfect example. Most of the psalm is a moving mediation on the how closely and intimately God knows us, inside and out: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, my soul knows that full well” (Ps 139:13-14).

The first eighteen verses of the psalm are similarly inspiring. Then it takes a turn: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? Yes, I hate them—through and through! They’ve become my enemies too” (Ps 139:19-22).

This kind of turn always caught me off guard and made me start asking all kinds of questions. Killing? Hatred? Enemies? Why did David have to go and ruin such a wonderful prayer of thanksgiving by bringing all this stuff into it? Was David really this judgmental, vindictive, and even...violent? If I pray this psalm, won’t it make me seem judgmental, vindictive, and violent as well?

Now, personally, I think it’s a good thing when our reading of Scripture drags up a lot of uncomfortable questions. Times of questioning are almost always opportunities for deep learning and spiritual growth. As Solomon says in the Proverbs, “Cry out for wisdom, and beg for understanding. Search for it like silver, and hunt for it like hidden treasure. Then you will understand respect for the Lord, and you will find that you know God” (Pro 2:3-5). When we approach the difficult questions head-on, we almost always find a blessing there. 

So how can we pray the difficult psalms—the ones that seem to pass judgment on people, rain insults upon adversaries, and ask God to destroy enemies?

It was the Apostle Paul who helped me find a way to pray these difficult parts of the Psalms. Paul was a pious and upright Jew (Phil 3:4-6) and even trained to be a rabbi (Acts 22:3), which means he no doubt prayed the Psalms all his life, before and after he became a Christian. And I have no doubt he prayed every part of the Psalms, including the seemingly violent, vengeful, enemy-cursing psalms.

For me, the key to praying the difficult psalms is something that Paul teaches the Christians at Ephesus. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he writes, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

What I understand Paul to be saying here is that people themselves are not our real enemies, no matter what they may do to us. Our real enemy is Evil itself—the Evil that deceives people, traps them in its power, and motivates them to lash out in hate, greed, and violence. Wherever there’s hate, greed, and violence between people, that Evil is present and at work. 

To hate a person, even one we perceive to be our enemy, is to misplace our hatred. Jesus teaches this very clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:43-45). To love our enemies, Jesus says, is what it means to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Hatred toward enemies is not a legitimate option for Christians. Hate should never be directed toward a person. 

Yet hate does have one legitimate object—Evil itself. Paul instructs the Christians in Rome to “hate what is evil” and “cling to what is good” (Rom 12:9). This isn’t a teaching unique to Paul; he’s simply echoing a consistent Old Testament teaching. The prophet Amos warns Israel to “hate evil, love good, and establish justice” (Amos 5:15). Solomon wisely teaches that “to have respect for the Lord is to hate evil” (Pro 8:13). The psalmist joins this chorus as well, saying, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (Ps 97:10). 

It’s hard for us to separate hatred of Evil itself from hatred of the people deceived and enslaved by it. That confusion can cause us to lash out against people who’ve wronged us in a desire for revenge. God takes personal revenge off the table as an option. Through Moses, God says, “Vengeance is mine, and retribution” (Deut 32:35) or payback. Paul explains this teaching to the Romans when he says, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). 

Settling the score with other people is God’s business, not ours. This doesn’t mean we don’t pursue justice against an attacker or abuser; it simply means that we must not lash out toward anyone in hate, no matter the reason. Attacking someone out of hate just adds more evil on top of the evil already done to us. The Apostles Peter (1 Pet 3:9) and Paul (Rom 12:17, 1 Thess 5:15) both teach against repaying “evil for evil” because doing so is antithetical to the way of Jesus.

Given these prohibitions against revenge and hating enemies, how can we possibly pray psalms like Psalm 109, in which David pleads with God for very specific acts of revenge upon a betrayer? “May his days be few,” David prays, “and may another take his office. May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg, and may they seek sustenance far from their ruined homes” (Ps 109:8-10). And that’s just be beginning of what David has in mind for his enemy. How can we pray something like this as our own prayer? Surely this isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he told us to pray for those who persecute us!

Out of fairness to David, what we see in this psalm isn’t actually revenge itself, but a prayer for God to take vengeance on his behalf. David no doubt recognizes that vengeance belongs to God, so he’s asking God to fulfill that role. David isn’t going out and doing these things to his enemy—he’s submitting his lawsuit to God, the great Judge of the universe, and pleading for justice. He’s crying out to God instead of sharpening his sword. 

Even so, this doesn’t sit right with us, does it? It doesn’t seem like the way of Jesus. After all, Jesus, in one of his most challenging teachings, says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also” (Mt 5:38-39). How can we live out that teaching and still pray these psalms of violence and vengeance?

My answer: Spiritualize them.

When I pray these types of psalms, I read the enemies depicted there as symbols of Evil itself. Rather than praying for the destruction of human beings, I pray for God to stamp out our true enemies: ”the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of wickedness,” as Paul called them (Eph 6:12). This transforms violent, seemingly vengeful prayers into a spiritual assault against the sin and Evil that wants to enslave us. Praying in this way allows me to oppose Evil alongside the psalmist without compromising my commitment to love every human being. 

I don’t typically spiritualize what I read in the Bible, and I generally advise against it. For instance, when I read that Jesus calmed the stormy sea (Mt 8:23-27, Mk 4:35-41, Lk 8:22-25), I don’t read it as just a metaphor for Jesus calming the storm within our hearts—though he certainly does bring peace there as well. Rather, I take the text to mean what it says: that Jesus displayed his divine power by calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee. 

When it comes to this most difficult variety of psalms, however, I take a different approach. As I discussed in detail in last week’s post, we can prayerfully read the Psalms through two differently colored lenses at once: the lens of David’s original Israelite context (which in Psalm 109 seems to be the bloody aftermath of an ambush by a false ally) and, simultaneously, the lens of our own prayer in the light of Christ’s teaching. I believe the most practical way to apply these interpretive 3-D glasses when praying these most difficult psalms is to acknowledge the original context but lean much harder into the spiritual meaning. We squint with one eye while looking intently through the other.

I didn’t invent this approach to the difficult psalms. It’s been around for as long as Christians have been reading and praying the Psalms. Probably the most famous example from Church history is St. Augustine of Hippo’s fourth-century commentary on Psalm 137. Psalm 137 ends with perhaps the most disturbing lines in all of the Bible: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, blessed is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8-9). 

It’s an absolutely horrifying and morally repugnant image. Augustine recognized this as well as we do, and so he spiritualized it. Take a look at this excerpt from his commentary: “What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. When an evil desire is still little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit. When it is little, dash it. Dash it against the Rock, and that Rock is Christ.” Augustine saw that the true enemy isn’t Babylon, but Evil and the sin it inspires, and that Christ is our only hope against our spiritual enemy. 

Reading Psalm 137 through the lens of Christ, Augustine looked beyond the original context to see how the words were spiritually pointing him to the way of Jesus. This method of spiritual reading isn’t original to Augustine. In fact, he learned it from the Bible itself. His interpretation of the rock as Christ is borrowed directly from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that Moses and the ancient Israelites “all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink” while wandering in the desert, “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:3-4).

For me, a spiritualized approach to reading the difficult, violent, vengeful passages in the Psalms makes praying them possible. Is it the most satisfying solution? No, not really. Is it a legitimate way to handle it? Yes, I think so. Augustine seemed to think so, and Paul used a similarly spiritual approach to his reading of some parts of the Exodus narrative. 

Has it borne fruit in my prayer life? Absolutely. Struggling with these questions every time I pray a difficult psalm helps deepen my conviction about the inviolable sacredness of human life and gives me new strength to oppose the spiritual forces of wickedness wherever I may encounter them, trusting in the mighty power of God in Jesus Christ, who defeated sin and death by his cross and resurrection. May this ancient practice produce fruit in your prayer as well.

Join me next week for the final installment of this blog series, where we’ll consider how praying the Psalms might help us better understand ourselves and better love our neighbors.

Posted by Alyssa Robinson at 9:12 AM
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