“May your children be fatherless and your wife a widow. May your children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May no one extend kindness to you or take pity on your fatherless children.”
The deeply disturbing diatribe of Psalm 109 – called by C.S. Lewis an “unabashed hymn of hate” – is difficult for our modern ears to hear or comprehend. Indeed, this Psalm has proved difficult for the Church itself to rightly comprehend. It was used first in the Middle Ages, and later by Martin Luther and others, to justify violence against the Jewish people, and was recited by angry mobs during the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 19th and 20th centuries.
For a New Testament Christian who understands God most clearly through the person of Jesus Christ, this psalm seems antithetical to our beliefs. It runs counter to the teachings of Jesus to love our enemy, to do good to those who hate us, to forgive. But as with all Scripture, Psalm 109 must be read not unmoored from, but in the context of Christ’s redemptive work. Read thus, this psalm has something valuable to teach about the capaciousness of that work.
It is hard for us in our relatively comfortable and peace-filled lives to relate to the passion of this psalm, because it is the passion of one who has endured horrendous evil. It is also a passion that has been reappropriated to inflict horrendous evil. When we read this psalm, imagining its horrible words flowing from our own hearts, or towards us, or because of us and the evil we have done, we are forced to confront a dimension of human experience that is dark and horrible – a dimension that Jesus took fully upon himself.
Gregory of Nazianzus said of Christ’s redemptive work, “That which he has not assumed, he has not healed.” Psalm 109 reminds us of the depths of human misery and horror that Jesus had to assume, in order to heal. And today’s New Testament reading reminds us of how and in what form that healing has taken place. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” By the grace of Jesus, the psalmist’s cries for vengeance are redeemed. Because while the longed-for victory is had, it is, as is typical with Jesus, surprising.
The victory is decisive, but it is not won by inflicting misery or death on a person, or an ethnic group, or you, or me. No, this victory is won against misery and death itself. This is a victory for and with humanity, that promises not vengeance, but transformation and healing. It is a victory that brings peace, not violence, and life, not death. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
I am partners with David, mom to Myles, Lucy, and Nora, a sometimes-lawyer, and an always-curious learner. Book clubs, art museums, and a good sweat are my favorites. I live in Brookline.