Psalms of… Vengeance?

Watterson Imprecation
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, with Psalm 55 (read it here) as my preaching text.


Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Recently the The New York Times published an Opinion piece called “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us.” The subheading was: “They are our apex predator, the deadliest hunters of human beings on the planet.”

An opening line was innocent enough: “It has been one of the most aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito.”

But the article shared some alarming facts. It described mosquitoes as “a swarming army of 100 trillion that kills (some) 700,000 people annually…” and “…research suggests (they) may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived.”

Even the most humane among us have no trouble swatting or smushing a mosquito. We might have some choice words for them.

Were mosquitoes to become a topic of prayer, we’d have no trouble praying against them: may they die a thousand deaths; may they leave no progeny behind; may they burn in the unquenchable fire. Even as I was looking over this sermon in the cool quiet of the morning, I found myself praying for a wretched fate for the crows that loudly feasted on our compost.

But when it comes to praying against other people or institutions, we might be a little more reluctant. We might wonder: can I pray that? We hear David pray, “Let death come upon them; / …for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” We wonder what to do with this verse and others like it, that are right here in our holy book.

Psalm 55 is a prayer of vengeance—an “imprecatory” Psalm is the category interpreters put it in. We have Psalm of thanksgiving, Psalms of confession, Psalms of trust, Psalms of lament, royal Psalms, and others. But the imprecatory Psalms may be the hardest ones to know what to do with. These are Psalms that, in short, call on God to take swift action on enemies, even to the point of their destruction (HT: Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies).

Imprecatory prayers can be as specific and harmless as, “Dear God, I pray that that person who is texting while driving would get into the slightest of fender benders as a harmless but effective wake-up call so that they never text and drive again.” And imprecatory prayers can be as broad and intense as, “God, destroy these your enemies, so that they never see the light of day again!”

Some commentators say we should not pray these Psalms, as Christians. The verse “Bless those who curse you,” they say, is reason to no longer ask God to curse those who curse us.

Some of these commentators—including ones with a high view of Scripture—have described these Psalms in less than favorable terms, like:

  • “defective prayers”
  • “cold-blooded”
  • prayers of “malignant cruelty” (SOURCE)
  • “terrible” / “contemptible”
  • “barbarous and revolting”
  • “a disgrace to human nature” (SOURCE)

C.S. Lewis reacts to these Psalms this way: “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves” (Reflections on the Psalms, 22). Lewis said, the imprecatory Psalms—Psalms of vengeance—“are indeed devilish” (25).

He’s entitled to his interpretation, of course, but in recent months I have come to view prayers of vengeance in a different way. I’ve made it my practice—given myself permission, really—to pray like the Psalmists do when they’re praying God’s vengeance would come to earth.

Thinking of the haughty and proud who abuse their power, I’ve prayed words like these ones in Psalm 59:

For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.

For those that lie serially, and who incite violence, I have prayed words like these ones in today’s Psalm, Psalm 55:

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.

I’m far from alone in reading the Psalms this way. Readers and interpreters of these Psalms have argued that just like we need Psalms of lament, we need imprecatory Psalms—prayers of vengeance. This is especially true when we consider the church across the world, and Christians who may live under a kind of duress or oppression that we may not know in our contexts. One commentator says, “A diet of upbeat songs and positive testimonies does not meet the needs of those suffering disappointment, ill health, or persecution.”

To be clear, no one in this worshiping community has been the subject of my recent imprecatory prayers. But as I’ve tried to inhabit Psalms like the one we read—as I’ve tried to pattern my own prayers after them—I’ve been reminded that God is a God of mercy and a God of judgment.

This is not just an Old Testament characteristic of God, either. Even the New Testament features words of imprecation, on the lips of Paul and even on the lips of Jesus himself. Martyrs in Revelation 6, killed for the sake of Jesus, cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

In my own praying, I’ve found myself feeling more vulnerable and more honest in God’s presence when I pray a prayer like Psalm 55. That honesty has led me to a greater sense of intimacy, or at least to feel like I’m doing something.

The big question about imprecatory Psalms—with a nod to Bob the Builder—is: Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Still, I think the Psalms suggest some important parameters, if we’re going to take the plunge and pray prayers of vengeance.

1. Leave vengeance to God

First, imprecatory Psalms leave vengeance to God. They leave vengeance to God.

This is hugely important, noted by many readers of the Psalms, and gives us a reason to pray a prayer we might otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Our Psalm ended like this:

But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.

It did not end like this

But I, O God, will case them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days, because I will make sure of it myself. I will trust in myself.

Fundamentally, a prayer calling God to take action against his enemies is an affirmation of trust in God. It’s to say, “This is God’s job; not mine.”

Deuteronomy and Romans and Hebrews all quote God as saying, “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” Vengeance is not ours. We do not repay. God does.

When Psalm 55 and others like it pray for vengeance, it’s an affirmation that God judges in a way we cannot and should not. Better to ask God to exact justice—even destruction—on a serial evildoer, than for us to go rogue try to do it ourselves.

Prayers of imprecation pray for vengeance to come from where it should come from—from the Almighty and just God, not from ourselves.

2. Know “your” enemies

A second parameter seems important to Psalmists who prayed against others: knowing who “enemies” really are. Prayers of vengeance are not for that kid in your class who just bugs you; they’re not for someone who looks at you funny; they’re not for New York Yankees fans.

Imprecatory Psalms are chiefly reserved for those who are enemies of God, who set themselves up against God’s righteousness and justice, and who persist in doing evil in the world. They are those who harm precious ones created in the image of God.

Think of our Matthew passage today. Jesus says:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Or consider Psalm 139, powerfully rendered in the King James Version:

O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies.

As we say in my family sometimes, “Hate is a strong word.”

We’re probably hesitant (rightly!) to even use the word “enemy.” And we know Jesus calls us to love our enemies, whoever those may be.

But whatever else we make of this part of Psalm 139, the point of the pray-er is that he’s calling on God to silence and put an end not to those who speak against him, but who speak against God.

Prayers of vengeance are not for personal vendettas. They’re prayers that God would deal justly with God’s enemies. And if we want to know who those are, we’d do well to spend lots of time reading Scripture and praying and connecting with other Christians, so we don’t mistake our enemies for God’s enemies.

Further, we want to keep in mind, as Ephesians says, that

(O)ur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

If you’ve got pent up energy and frustration when you see injustice and wickedness in the world—pray first “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Those are the invisible powers animating the visible powers of this world.

3. Imprecate yourself?

Psalmists who prayed imprecatory prayers (1) were leaving vengeance to God and (2) were defining as “enemies” those who set themselves up specifically as God’s enemies.

A third parameter that’s important, if we’re going to pray like this, is that we be ready to turn this kind of prayer back on ourselves.

In Psalm 139, David confesses in prayer to despising those who despise God, calling down judgment and destruction on them.

But we know how that Psalm ends:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

I trust I’m not the only one who has read that Psalm and skipped from, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” to, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” But those intense imprecations come in between. And they cause the ending to make even more sense.

David says, “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Because he knows that there may be others who could rightly pray prayers of imprecation against him! Bathsheba certainly could have. His daughter, whose rape David did not take seriously, certainly could have. He at least has the self-knowledge to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there is any offensive way in me….”

We might consider a similar ending to our prayers, as we pray for God’s justice and judgement to be enacted on the wicked.

For example, we might pray against racism, and those who advance it. In the same prayer, we might also pray, “Lord, show me any racist thoughts—however minor!—in my heart. Reveal to me, God, if there are any ways have I benefited from and perpetuated systems of racism.”

And we pray against those who harm others day after day, we might also ask, “God, help me to see: how have I hurt others with my words and actions, perhaps causing them to want to pray prayers of imprecation against me?”

One interpreter cautions about these Psalms: “Those who pray them are inevitably faced with the question of their own complicity in the web of violence.”

That makes praying imprecatory prayers even harder—we maybe already feel uncomfortable praying them, but to do so in good conscience before God, we need to be ready to point the prayers back on ourselves.

“Surely there is a God”

Psalms of imprecation, at their best, leave vengeance to God; they define “enemies” less as their own enemies and more as God’s enemies; and they are ready to implicate themselves.

It’s helped me to see this kind of prayer as a more detailed expression of lines in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

If God’s kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, that means there will be judgement for the wicked.

One interpreter and modern-day prayer of these Psalms said it like this:

As poetic prayers, the psalms of vengeance are a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.

Psalm 58, another one of these “Psalms of zeal,” we might call them, ends like this:

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

If God lets evil go on forever, what hope is there for us? If God cannot stop and will never stop evil, how can we have faith?

As with lament Psalms, imprecatory Psalms are a way for us to keep showing up in God’s presence, even when seemingly unchecked evil might otherwise shut us down and keep us quiet.

“Surely there is a God!”

We need to see—the world needs to see—God in all power, exercising mercy and judgment, so that we can all say, “Surely there is a God!”

New (and Very Big) Introduction to the Septuagint

There are already good introductions to the Septuagint: see Will Ross’s list here. I’ve reviewed a couple of them: T. Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek and Mogens Müller’s First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.

Baylor University Press has announced a Septuagint introduction (728 pages!) coming in November: Introduction to the Septuagint, edited by Siegfried Kreuzer.

I can personally attest to Prof. Kreuzer’s graciousness and meticulousness as an editor. No doubt this book will be good.

Here’s the description from Baylor’s product page:

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible created by Jews seeking a place of legitimacy for diaspora Jewishness and faith among the traditions of Hellenistic culture, was a monumental religious and cultural achievement.

This Greek Old Testament, in its original form and revised versions, provided the scriptural basis for Judaism in the Greek-speaking diaspora, enabled the emergence and spread of Christianity, and influenced translations of the Bible into African and European languages. Over time, however, the Septuagint’s relevance faded for Jews, and the Hebrew text eventually reasserted its dominance within Judaism. This led many to neglect the Septuagint as an authentic witness to the biblical tradition. But the Septuagint remained important, inspiring biblical writings and further translations into Latin, Coptic, and Armenian. In combination with the Qumran biblical texts, it provides yet further indication of the multivocal state of the Hebrew Bible around the turn of the eras and proves to be a text of continuous interest for biblical scholarship and cultural-historical studies.

Siegfried Kreuzer’s  Introduction to the Septuagint presents, in English, the most extensive introduction of the Septuagint to date. It offers comprehensive overviews of the individual biblical writings, including the history of research, current findings and problems, and perspectives for future research. Additionally, this survey presents a history of the Septuagint in its Greco-Hellenistic background, theories of its genesis, the history of its revisions, its lore in antiquity, and an overview of the most important manuscripts and witnesses of the convoluted transmission history of the text. The text includes extensive bibliographies that show the ongoing interest in Septuagint studies and provide a reliable basis for future studies.

A collaboration representing multiple nationalities, professional perspectives, and denominational traditions, this dependable guide invites newcomers and experts alike to venture into the rich world of one of the most influential works of literature in history.

Especially useful will be the book-by-book treatment, which will be interesting to compare to the T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint, which also takes a book-by-book approach.

You can learn more about the book here.

Gone for a Run’s 13.1 Mile Running Journal

It’s often said that all you really need to run is shoes, shorts, and a shirt (even that is optional). True, but for those of us who want to combine running with data tracking, a little introspection, and the #analoguelife, there are running journals.

I reviewed the Believe Training Journal here. It’s a robust journal that includes training tips, articles, mini-essays (!) and more. Although much of it is guided, there’s plenty of blank space to just write down the runs you did.

GoneForaRun.com makes a series of running journals that are simpler. Here’s their description of the features:

  • 160 Pages with 280 daily Training log entries
  • Convenient 7.5″ x 5″ size with protective cover
  • Over 140 unique motivational + inspirational quotes
  • Includes pages for goals, weekly & monthly mileage summary, my race log, PR’s, bucket list + race registration log

So all the essentials are there, especially if the Believe journal is too much for you.

GoneForaRun was kind to send me a review copy of one of their journals, so I could write about it here (and write in it). They sent the 13.1 Math Miles journal.

The cover is a great-looking yellow and blue.

 

 

The cover brings makes me think of the old Langenscheid dictionary covers, a pleasant memory:

 

 

Each page has room for you to log two runs, so that a full spread with the journal open shows you four runs at a time. A downside to this is if you run more than four times a week, you can’t see an entire week’s workouts on a two-page spread. There are 70 front-and-back sheets in the journal for a total of 280 runs you can log. This number also is funny to me, since you’d have to run 5.3846 times a week to fill up this journal in a year. More serious runners (who run or work out six times a week) will need another journal before a year is up. There are two pages of weekly and monthly summary, which is enough for two years, but even for a more casual 3x/week runner, the total number of pages won’t be enough for two years.

At any rate, the layout is clean and simple:

 

 

There are places for goals, tracking PRs, and a bucket list:

 

 

There is lots of room (four pages!) for tracking your races separately, too:

 

 

I’m a sucker for sewn binding, and this journal has it! That combined with the plastic slip case will prolong the life of the journal.

 

 

My favorite part is the weekly and monthly summary, where you can track just mileage.

 

 

There are also six notes pages in the back, where you could do longer-range planning or perhaps sketch out your training plan.

The simplicity of this journal is great. The amount of runs it records (280) is odd; I would have rather seen seven spaces for runs spread out over two pages, like most weekly planners have. But everything else you need in a training log is here, so if you want a journal without the extras, take a look.

The 13.1 Math Miles journal is here (in four different colors). All the other GoneForaRun journals are here.

Chemex Might Make You Not Want to Use Your Regular Coffee Maker Again

It was fawning interest at first sight and then love at first drink with the Chemex Filter-Drip Coffeemaker.

I love to drink coffee, and the fact that our coffee of choice is Peet’s made me think I was kind of a coffee snob. (Wonderfully, our local grocery store sells Peet’s whole bean by the package, and often on sale.) But deep down inside I knew that my reliance on a standard coffee maker–and only very occasional use of a French press–meant coffee brewing snobbery was still an aspiration.

Chemex scratches that itch, but in a non-pretentious way. I’ve been enjoying regular use of the Ten Cup Glass Handle Chemex for the last couple weeks, which Chemex kindly sent my way for review.

It comes with its own filters. Behold:

Chemex even included an awesome leather coaster to put the glass on.

Now, it’s time to make the coffee. Pretty simple (and there was an instruction sheet included):

  • Grind the beans, medium coarse
  • Put them in the filter on top of the glass brewer
  • Boil the water (Chemex has this sweet looking thing, but I just used my tea kettle)
  • Pour the water over the beans and let them “bloom” for 30 seconds (Chemex tells me the bloom is “escaping gas that has been trapped in the beans during the roasting process”
  • Pour water over the beans, so that it goes almost to the top of the glass
  • Repeat

This is the smoothest cup of coffee I’ve ever had at home. There’s not an ounce of sludge, anywhere in sight. Even the pour from the Chemex to mug is perfectly clear and clean. Here’s an image of the drip brewing:

Mmmmmmm.

Drinking coffee from the regular coffee maker the next day was a serious step down. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for coffee in all its forms!) I had no idea what I was missing.

The design is awesome. The glass is strong. The filters are easy to use and don’t leak. The handle makes pouring easy. Maybe the only thing I’d add is some kind of cozy or heat cover. You can put this on the stove on low heat (if gas or glass stove top), but then I’d have to remember it’s there! (I.e., no auto-off.) But I put the brewed coffee right into a Thermos, so that works out well.

Learn more about the Chemex at its product page here. Two thumbs (or in this case, mugs) up!

5 Forthcoming Reviews

Just a short “in the mail” post today to share five reviews you can expect to read here in the coming weeks and months:

 

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  1. First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace (Oxford University Press)  

    This book just arrived in the mail yesterday. Some years ago I read a few books on the Rwandan genocide, and have had occasional interest in African history. Time to reactivate that interest and learn more about what’s been happening in Sudan. (LINK)

     

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  2. The 13.1 GoneForaRun running journal  

    It will be hard to top the Believe training journal I use now, but this one looks good so far. (LINK)

     

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  3. Old Testament Hebrew vocabulary cards  

    I learned Hebrew using these more than 10 years ago; now the Basics of Biblical Hebrew suite from Zondervan is in a new edition, so I’m re-learning with the updated cards. (LINK)

     

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  4. A sweet leather wallet from Galen Leather  

    It holds a pen! Cards! A notebook! Money! (money sold separately) It looks, feels, and smells amazing. (LINK)

     

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  5. Harvard Business Review’s new book, Why Do So Many Men Become Incompetent Leaders? (and how to fix it)  

    I just finished the book yesterday, so will probably post about that next. (LINK)

Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (74 Years Ago Today)

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that lead up to Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.

 


 

This post is adapted from a post I wrote around this time five years ago, as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I was doing. See other gathered posts here.

Two More Winners from Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.

We’re continuing to enjoy the recipes from Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky (publisher page / Amazon). (And we still use its predecessor, Run Fast. Eat Slow.) I think it’s safe to say that recently the majority of prepared foods in our house has used one of those two cookbooks.

Two more yummy ones to show in this post. First, the ultra-healthy Grain Salad, for which you can use quinoa or any other grain you have in the house.

 

A snippet of what’s in the book

 

Yum yum.

 

That salad was dee-lish-us.

I was eager to try the cardamom granola recipe, however aged our cardamom might be! I tripled the recipe so that we’d have some to share.

 

Recipe snippet

 

Used the biggest bowl I could find

 

 

It came out great. If anything, the recipe could have called for more cardamom; its taste wasn’t very pronounced, but that could be because some of my spice had lost its flavor over time.

Oh, and have I mentioned the superhero muffins? If you loved them from the first cookbook, this follow-up offers more variations. Lots of great grab-and-go (but healthy and nourishing) snack ideas here.

I’ve barely even gotten into the book’s racing tips and overarching eating/kitchen strategies; we’ve been so eager to just go the the recipes. But it’s got some really useful big picture stuff, too, like a compelling section on why the book doesn’t include calorie counts. And there are chapters devoted to things like “Jump-Start Your Kitchen” (chapter two) and some of Shalane’s training routine (the third chapter, “Rise & Run”).

This cookbook/guidebook is definitely a worthy sequel, and has a prominent place among our cookbooks. You can check out the Run Fast. Eat Slow. website here.

 


 

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow., sent so I could review it, but with no expectation as to the nature or content of my review.