Praying the Most Difficult Psalms

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God's holy Name.

Let his children be waifs and beggars; let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.

Many Jews and Christians know that the first two quotes come from the psalms. The shock is that the third one does too. How do we who love the psalms -- and hear the voice of God in them -- deal with this?

For a book that ranks among the world's great spiritual treasures, the Book of Psalms includes some horrifying sentiments. Alongside joyous hallelujahs, we find religious nationalism: Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand; to wreak vengeance on the nations (149:6-7a). Not far from praise of God's boundless love, we read gloating over the downfall of evil rulers: The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (58:10). Elsewhere there are insults, railings at God and, worst of all, curses on children. Nor are these isolated instances: depending on how you count them, the biblical book includes about 20 "imprecatory," or cursing, psalms among its 150.

Theologians and religious institutions have wrestled with these psalms for centuries. Some, like St. Augustine, have explained them as prophetic prayers, similar to those uttered by prophets like Jeremiah to call down judgment on God's enemies. Others hear their hostility directed against one's own "inner demons." Commentators have explained them by reference to the often flamboyant language and metaphor of the ancient Middle East. Many churches have edited them, made them optional or even omitted them entirely from corporate worship.

But is that really the best way to treat them? What if they have something to say to us in the postmodern era? And if they do, how do we bring ourselves to wrestle with this gut-wrenching poetry?

This presents a painful quandary for anyone who reads the psalms, and especially for those who pray the psalms. Several times a day, Christian monks and nuns gather to say the Daily Office, a fixed order of prayers and readings, to refocus their attention on God. The psalms form the centerpiece of these prayers, and some monasteries include a few, or most, or even all of the nastier verses therein. Those of us who live in the "real world" but follow their example do the same.

Isn't that barbaric? It's hard to blame skeptics for regarding such practices as proof that religion is a force for evil in the world. But there is more to this than meets the eye. To understand what, we need to grasp why we pray (or even read) the psalms in the first place.
By praying any sacred text, we allow the deepest part of ourselves to encounter wisdom outside ourselves. That gets us out of our own heads. We discover that our perspective is one among many and that other perspectives are just as worthy of attention as our own. Drawn out of our own limited views and vested interests, we reorient toward others and toward God. Praying sacred texts in a fixed order reinforces this dynamic by confronting us with passages that, as often as not, don't reflect our thoughts or feelings on that day.

So what does the wisdom of the psalms teach us? Whatever else lies within their verses, they convey a vast range of human emotion as expressed to God. At various times, the psalmists exult in an almost giddy joy, teeter on the edge of despair, question God's action and rail angrily at the universe. There is fear and sorrow, praise and condemnation of kings, confidence in God's justice and the lack thereof.

When we pray psalms, then, we come face to face with who we are as human beings. When we pray all the psalms, even the cringe-worthy verses, we see the full range of our humanity. A hard truth becomes clear: the passions that inspired the psalmists -- noble and inappropriate, holy and horrifying -- live within us as well.

From that hard truth come two priceless breakthroughs. When we identify with all other humans, our compassion for others, even the most reprehensible and downtrodden, takes on a whole new dimension. It becomes our instinct to react first with empathy and not judgment. At the same time, we realize that God sees to the very depths of the human race -- and loves us still.

In this way, even O God, break their teeth in their mouths (58:6) makes us more self-aware, more compassionate and closer to the Divine Spirit. Praying this way never feels good. But it can turn us toward good -- and toward God.