Squeamishness in the Psalter

I’m proof-reading lectionary tables again.  I must say it’s one of the worst parts of maintaining an electronic breviary…

However, I do have interesting things pass before my eyes. At the moment, I’m considering the pieces of the psalter that the ’79 BCP doesn’t want you to hear in public worship. The way I’m assessing this, is calling out all of the passages that are marked as optional and therefore skippable.

Parts of Psalms

  • Ps 21:8-14: “8   Your hand will lay hold upon all your enemies; *
    your right hand will seize all those who hate you.
    9     You will make them like a fiery furnace *
    at the time of your appearing, O LORD;
    10     You will swallow them up in your wrath, *
    and fire shall consume them.
    11     You will destroy their offspring from the land *
    and their descendants from among the peoples of the earth.
    12     Though they intend evil against you
    and devise wicked schemes, *
    yet they shall not prevail.
    13     For you will put them to flight *
    and aim your arrows at them.
    14     Be exalted, O LORD, in your might; *
    we will sing and praise your power.”
  • Ps 110:6-7: “6     He will heap high the corpses; *
    he will smash heads over the wide earth.
    7     He will drink from the brook beside the road; *
    therefore he will lift high his head.”
  • Ps 63:9-11: “9     May those who seek my life to destroy it *
    go down into the depths of the earth;
    10     Let them fall upon the edge of the sword, *
    and let them be food for jackals.
    11     But the king will rejoice in God;
    all those who swear by him will be glad; *
    for the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.”
  • Ps 139:18-23: “18     Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God! *
    You that thirst for blood, depart from me.
    19     They speak despitefully against you; *
    your enemies take your Name in vain.
    20     Do I not hate those, O LORD, who hate you? *
    and do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
    21     I hate them with a perfect hatred; *
    they have become my own enemies.
    22     Search me out, O God, and know my heart; *
    try me and know my restless thoughts.
    23     Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
    and lead me in the way that is everlasting.”
  • Ps 68:21-23: “21     God shall crush the heads of his enemies, *
    and the hairy scalp of those who go on still in their wickedness.
    22     The Lord has said, “I will bring them back from Bashan; *
    I will bring them back from the depths of the sea;
    23     That your foot may be dipped in blood, *
    the tongues of your dogs in the blood of your enemies.””
  • Ps 69:24-30: “24     Let the table before them be a trap *
    and their sacred feasts a snare.
    25     Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, *
    and give them continual trembling in their loins.
    26     Pour out your indignation upon them, *
    and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.
    27     Let their camp be desolate, *
    and let there be none to dwell in their tents.
    28     For they persecute him whom you have stricken *
    and add to the pain of those whom you have pierced.
    29     Lay to their charge guilt upon guilt, *
    and let them not receive your vindication.
    30     Let them be wiped out of the book of the living *
    and not be written among the righteous.”
  • Ps 109:5-19: “5     Set a wicked man against him, *
    and let an accuser stand at his right hand.
    6     When he is judged, let him be found guilty, *
    and let his appeal be in vain.
    7     Let his days be few, *
    and let another take his office.
    8     Let his children be fatherless, *
    and his wife become a widow.
    9     Let his children be waifs and beggars; *
    let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.
    10     Let the creditor seize everything he has; *
    let strangers plunder his gains.
    11     Let there be no one to show him kindness, *
    and none to pity his fatherless children.
    12     Let his descendants be destroyed, *
    and his name be blotted out in the next generation.
    13     Let the wickedness of his fathers be remembered before the LORD, *
    and his mother’s sin not be blotted out;
    14     Let their sin be always before the LORD; *
    but let him root out their names from the earth;
    15     Because he did not remember to show mercy, *
    but persecuted the poor and needy
    and sought to kill the brokenhearted.
    16     He loved cursing,let it come upon him; *
    he took no delight in blessing,
    let it depart from him.
    17     He put on cursing like a garment, *
    let it soak into his body like water
    and into his bones like oil;
    18     Let it be to him like the cloak which he wraps around himself, *
    and like the belt that he wears continually.
    19     Let this be the recompense from the LORD to my accusers, *
    and to those who speak evil against me.”
  • Ps 108:7-13: “7     God spoke from his holy place and said, *
    “I will exult and parcel out Shechem;
    I will divide the valley of Succoth.
    8     Gilead is mine and Manasseh is mine; *
    Ephraim is my helmet and Judah my scepter.
    9     Moab is my washbasin,
    on Edom I throw down my sandal to claim it, *
    and over Philistia will I shout in triumph.”
    10     Who will lead me into the strong city? *
    who will bring me into Edom?
    11     Have you not cast us off, O God? *
    you no longer go out, O God, with our armies.
    12     Grant us your help against the enemy, *
    for vain is the help of man.
    13     With God we will do valiant deeds, *
    and he shall tread our enemies under foot.”
  • Ps 143:12: “12     Of your goodness, destroy my enemies
    and bring all my foes to naught, *
    for truly I am your servant.”
  • Ps 137:7-9: “7     Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,
    against the people of Edom, *
    who said, “Down with it! down with it!
    even to the ground!”
    8     O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, *
    happy the one who pays you back
    for what you have done to us!
    9     Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
    and dashes them against the rock!”

Whole Psalms

  • Ps 53
  • Ps 59
  • Ps 58
  • Ps 60
  • Ps 70
  • Ps 79
  • Ps 83
  • Ps 100 (ok—this is understandable if the Jubilate is used as the Invitatory)
  • Ps 95 (I suppose here the concern is over-repetition of the Venite is the usual Invitatory)
  • Ps 120
  • Ps 127
  • Ps 133

Funny true story on one of these… On one of my first nursing home visits as a pastoral intern, the senior pastor and I went to one of the elderly women of the congregation. The pastor introduced me to her and said, “Oh, this guy’s great, you’ll love hearing him read you the psalms. Let’s see, your favorite is Ps 109, right? Derek–why don’t you read that one for her. “

So I did as I was told. That’s the one with that terrific cursing section in it and I remember thinking to myself as I was reading it: “Man, it sounds like we’ve got some *serious* end-of-life issues to deal with here around forgiveness!”

When I finished, there was a long pause, and she tactfully said, “Ah, I don’t actually think that was it…” as my senior pastor attempted to sink through the floor in embarrassment.

8 Replies to “Squeamishness in the Psalter”

  1. I think there is a ill-advised paternalism at work here (like eviscerating and tidying up for mass consumption those original, gruesome and troubling Grimm’s fairytales). I believe that merit, depth and grace can come of wrestling with God in these troublesome psalms. Firstly, they are a model for us that God can, if fact, handle, redeem and sanctify anyone’s, even our own, most troublesome material. Secondly, even if these are not our own sentiments, we can call to mind, and vicariously pray the Divine Office as an act of charity for those undergoing experiences that evoke, as well as those beset by hardened hearts, hardened mind-sets that render, those hard feelings of hatred, vengeance, rage, envy, schadenfreude, entitlement, greed, rationalization, etc. (and, then maybe to sneak in an awareness that these may actually be our problems, too).

  2. Reading the Psalms in the 30 day cycle is the cure for this. And really, it doesn’t take that much more time. Once you get into it, you will be hooked for life.

  3. You go, Brian! You said a mouthful there – especially about the “redeeming of our own, most troublesome material.”

    Couldn’t agree more, and thanks for putting it so clearly….

  4. Yes, the 30-day cycle is the best I know. As much as I’d rather have a 1 or 2 week scheme, 30 day seems to be the best I can do what with work/kids/family, etc.

    I agree, Brian. If the psalms are being read through as a discipline—which is the point of the Office after all—then we need to hear and wrestle with these passages. Some of the sentiments we find there really should shock us, but all too often they shock us because they’re expressing what may be in our own hearts that we don’t like to/don’t want to acknowledge.

  5. Re: “troublesome Psalms”– I can’t recall the exact source (probably in Evagrius), but in the ancient/patristic/hesychastic tradition, such psalms were sometimes interpreted as referring to the demonic forces and/or passions which plague the soul, and which must be treated as “enemies”, and therefore fought and resisted on the spiritual plane. Something similar to what Brian says above re: “they are a model for us that God can, if fact, handle, redeem and sanctify anyone’s, even our own, most troublesome material.”

    I think most contemporary interpretations often fall into a more literalist (or, at the least) a purely rationalistic perspective, as well as one so influenced by the “post-Freudian psychology” and the “radical inclusiveness” views. From that perspective, no one is an enemy–not even the forces of evil. But then this perspective also seems to discount any such “old fashioned and out-dated” concept such as “sin” and “evil.”

    Personally, I have found the more ancient understanding far more powerful and effective and “real”. A la C.S. Lewis–we ignore the existence of evil at our own peril.

  6. The truth is, I parrot the teachings of a physician, monk, priest and Evagrius scholar, Fr. Luke Dysinger, OSB of St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, CA. If interested in such matters, one might find this Link edifying, the Antirrhetikos are most to the point.

  7. Thanks, Brian–yes, I know about Fr. Dysinger’s work.
    For another perspective on Evagrius, (from an Eastern Orthodox monk) I can highly recommend the three volume work by Fr. Theophanes (Constantine), called “The Psychological Basis of the Prayer of the Heart” which he has published on-line at: http://timiosprodromos4.blogspot.com/2006/01/description-of-work.html
    See especially Vol. II, “The Evagrian Ascetic”.
    He has also published a translation and commentary of Evagrius’ “To the Caesarians” at http://timiosprodromos5.blogspot.com/

  8. My parish uses the 30 day cycle (Coverdale), and so do I when I say MP/EP on my own. Sometimes they strike me as so over the top that they’re downright funny. Psalm 109 is perhaps the best example:

    16 His delight was in cursing, and it shall happen unto him *
    he loved not blessing, therefore shall it be far from him.
    17 He clothed himself with cursing, like as with a raiment *
    and it shall come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.
    18 Let it be unto him as the cloke that he hath upon him *
    and as the girdle that he is alway girded withal.
    19 Let it thus happen from the Lord unto mine enemies *
    and to those that speak evil against my soul.
    20 But deal thou with me, O Lord God, according unto thy Name *
    for sweet is thy mercy.

    Yes, Lord, smite them! Kill ’em all! Rend! (But remember to treat me, your favorite, nice, okay?).

    I take it as a tool of humility – a reminder that when people stand in front of God we sometimes say stupid and silly things, and to check what I’m asking God to do for evidence of the same. Probably not what the author intended, but I’m not big on authorial intent.

    In defense of the framers of the 7 week cycle, though, I don’t think they made 108 7:13 optional because it was too harsh, but because its metaphors aren’t really accessible to modern readers/hearers. “Moab is my washbasin” probably leaves the average congregant more confused than edified, for example.

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