Psalm 58 – Curse the Wicked

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
    whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
    when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
    “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
    surely there is a God who judges the earth.” (New International Version)

The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. There are eighteen imprecatory psalms within the Old Testament psalter, all of which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets, expressing deep anger. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, contained in Holy Scripture for our use.

One reason for the imprecatory psalms is that it is not any person’s place for revenge or retaliation. Instead, for people who are genuinely caught in the crosshairs of evil, for those who have awful trouble dogging them, prayer is their most effective recourse.

Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face so that you can deal with people who keep gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way. Yet, there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

There are many folks who consider imprecatory psalms a problem because of their detailed expressions of cursing. Yet, such psalms refuse to put a positive spin on malevolent motives, wicked words, and destructive actions.

Desperate people utter desperate prayers. Their unflinching sense of injustice will not allow them to sugarcoat the villainous plans of corrupt people.

Evil is never toppled with tepid prayers from wimpy worshipers. Rather, nefarious agendas are thwarted in the teeth of specific, focused, and intense prayers directed with spiritual precision to the very core of diabolical forces.

We need not be shy about being real with God, even with praying imprecatory prayers. There really are people in this world, maybe even in your own life, that have malicious intent against you or others. Our job is not personal revenge, but to entrust ourselves to the God who fights for the poor, the oppressed, and the needy against the arrogant and the powerful. Let your prayers reflect your life.

With no cursing of evil, our emotional pain and spiritual anger come out sideways in an unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. What I am proposing is that our terrible hurt and our rage needs to be acknowledged and voiced.

Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it. Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because where there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other becomes much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Spiritual problems require spiritual implements to solve. And the imprecatory psalms are a major tool for pushing back the dark forces of this world. They are a significant means of spiritual assertiveness against heinous acts, acerbic words, systemic evil, depraved people, and horrible circumstances.

God’s wrath is an expression of God’s love because God is not okay with evil taking root in the lives and institutions of humanity.

Prayer is our privilege of coming to the God who upholds justice and righteousness. For if God is for us, who can be against us?

Hebrews 12:3-17 – Don’t Let Bitterness Take Over

Think about Jesus, who endured opposition from sinners, so that you don’t become tired and give up.

You struggle against sin, but your struggles haven’t killed you. You have forgotten the encouraging words that God speaks to you as his children:

“My child, pay attention when the Lord disciplines you.
Don’t give up when he corrects you.
The Lord disciplines everyone he loves.
He severely disciplines everyone he accepts as his child.”

Endure your discipline. God corrects you as a father corrects his children. All children are disciplined by their fathers. If you aren’t disciplined like the other children, you aren’t part of the family. On earth we have fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them. Shouldn’t we place ourselves under the authority of God, the father of spirits, so that we will live? For a short time, our fathers disciplined us as they thought best.

Yet, God disciplines us for our own good so that we can become holy like him. We don’t enjoy being disciplined. It always seems to cause more pain than joy. But later on, those who learn from that discipline have peace that comes from doing what is right.

Strengthen your tired arms and weak knees. Keep walking along straight paths so that your injured leg won’t get worse. Instead, let it heal.

Try to live peacefully with everyone, and try to live holy lives, because if you don’t, you will not see the Lord. Make sure that everyone has kindness  from God so that bitterness doesn’t take root and grow up to cause trouble that corrupts many of you. 

Make sure that no one commits sexual sin or is as concerned about earthly things as Esau was. He sold his rights as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterwards, when he wanted to receive the blessing that the firstborn son was to receive, he was rejected. Even though he begged and cried for the blessing, he couldn’t do anything to change what had happened. (God’s Word Translation)

Bitterness begins with a seed of resentful anger…

it steadily grows within the soil of antagonism…

then, buds of hostility pop out…

and a devastating crop of corruption, injustice, chaos, and trouble feeds the community with death.

A bitter spirit doesn’t appear overnight.

Something happens, an event for which a person neither wanted nor expected.

And life becomes more difficult and sad.

A change or a loss occurred. It could be anything: a spouse walks out and asks for divorce; a job transfer or termination happens without any warning or discussion; estrangement occurs between friends; the house burns down; a bankruptcy looms in the near future; it’s hard to make ends meet; items are stolen; assault, abuse, and ridicule violate a person, family, or community.

These and a thousand other events happen in this old fallen world. It makes us angry, and rightly so. And yet, if that anger stews within us for too long, and grudges are nursed and coddled, it turns eventually into the bitterness which gives us gangrene of the soul. Then, like a nasty weed, the bitterness spreads and takes over the garden.

Don’t let bitterness take over your garden.

The ancient Hebrew Christians were in danger of losing their resolve and reneging on their commitment to Christ. Their circumstances had been so adverse, for so long, that they just did not have any more fight in them to keep going. 

The believers were losing their faith. They began holding onto grudges and letting go of their spiritual commitment; instead of holding fast to perseverance and discarding their resentments toward others, and even God.

Yes, life was a challenge. But, no, it wasn’t because God didn’t love them or was in some way just mean or capricious. The struggling believers were invited to see their adversity as education by correction in the school of hard knocks. It was a class in faith formation, and many of them were failing it.

God loves us enough to not always make everything a bowl of Cap’n Crunch or a plate full of bacon. The Lord is going to dish up some broccoli and brussels sprouts and expects us to eat it – even if we don’t like it or don’t want to. We aren’t going to have a healthy faith apart from it, and God is just being a good Father.

It isn’t what happens to us that matters; it’s how we interpret what happened to us that makes all the difference.

Hard unwanted circumstances will either make us bitter, or better. They will never leave us the same.

The path to perseverance, healthy interpretations, and keeping the seed of bitterness away is through keeping our minds on Jesus and being kind to one another. Antagonism cannot grow in the soil of grace and mercy.

Sometimes we might forget that Jesus didn’t have it so easy on this earth. He faced ridicule, insults, hardship, and was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Eventually, he was tortured and killed, having done nothing wrong and everything right. And there was absolutely no bitterness in his heart about any of it.

If that was the path for our Lord, then it is silly to think that, as Christ’s followers, we should avoid suffering and hardship. 

So, think about Jesus.

Consider him who endured suffering without resentment.

Don’t give up.

Keep your head and your heart in the game.

Feelings of resentful anger, giving up, and getting back at others only brings self-harm and makes life unnecessarily difficult for everyone. Whenever such feelings arise, it is our inner person’s warning that it is time to retreat with God and get a divine perspective on your situation.

Jesus, you are the Suffering Servant who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell. In the scope of eternity, it is a small thing for me to live for you and face any kind of ridicule and hardship it might bring to me. I only ask to be in solidarity with you in all things. Amen.

Psalm 74 – A Devastating Loss

Our God, why have you
    completely rejected us?
Why are you so angry
    with the ones you care for?
Remember the people
    you rescued long ago,
the tribe you chose
    for your very own.

Think of Mount Zion,
    your home;
walk over to the temple
left in ruins forever
    by those who hate us.

Your enemies roared like lions
    in your holy temple,
and they have placed
    their banners there.
It looks like a forest
    chopped to pieces.
They used axes and hatchets
    to smash the carvings.
They burned down your temple
    and badly disgraced it.
They said to themselves,
    “We’ll crush them!”
Then they burned each one
of your meeting places
    all over the country.
There are no more miracles
    and no more prophets.
Who knows how long
    it will be like this?

Our God, how much longer
    will our enemies sneer?
Won’t they ever stop
    insulting you?
Why don’t you punish them?
    Why are you holding back?

Our God and King,
you have ruled
    since ancient times;
you have won victories
    everywhere on this earth.
By your power you made a path
    through the sea,
and you smashed the heads
    of sea monsters.
You crushed the heads
    of the monster Leviathan,
then fed him to wild creatures
    in the desert.
You opened the ground
for streams and springs
    and dried up mighty rivers.
You rule the day and the night,
and you put the moon
    and the sun in place.
You made summer and winter
    and gave them to the earth.

Remember your enemies, Lord!
They foolishly sneer
    and won’t respect you.
You treat us like pet doves,
    but they mistreat us.
Don’t keep forgetting us
and letting us be fed
    to those wild animals.
Remember the agreement
    you made with us.
Violent enemies are hiding
in every dark corner
    of the earth.
Don’t disappoint those in need
    or make them turn from you,
but help the poor and homeless
    to shout your praises.
Do something, God!
    Defend yourself.
Remember how those fools
    sneer at you all day long.
Don’t forget the loud shouts
    of your enemies. (Contemporary English Version)

God’s temple was violated. The center and symbol of Jewish worship, culture, and life was gone.

Although we know that nothing lasts forever, that doesn’t mean we are always okay with it.

Asaph, the psalmist, was definitely not okay with the temple’s destruction. It was more than the loss of a building. For Asaph and his people, Jerusalem and the temple were the glue which held the world together.

They lost their center of being. And it was devastating to them.

Everyone and every society has their center, those values and practices which makes them a people. We all need a public center that defines who we are and what we are about. There must be a gravity that holds us to our place and doesn’t allow us to stray into oblivion and nothingness.

The central core of the people was eviscerated. So, today’s psalm is a lament for Jerusalem. It is a painful emotional and spiritual cry which goes well beyond bricks and mortar and the mere physical.

The ruin of the temple, Asaph complains, is the ruin of their God. Yes, it was the Babylonians who came and did the destroying and the de-centering. But it was God’s temple. God is the One responsible. It was God’s action. So, Asaph contends with God and comes at him with full challenge.

Asaph appealed to the Lord much like we do today. “Hey, God, remember how things were back there. It was good, right!? Now look at everything. It’s a mess.” The language is all meant to persuade God that things are so bad, that they are completely intolerable; thus, the Lord should do something about it.

God is bigger than the temple. So, therefore, God can and should restore the temple and make things right again, Asaph reasons. He sounds much like a person in the throes of grief, desperately trying to bargain with God to get things back to the way they were.

Point by point, the psalmist gives a sort of play-by-play to God about the awful situation and what happened. These guys who came and did their dirty work are ultimately your enemies, God, not just ours. So, take notice and act!

Remember the good old days, God, when you performed mighty acts of power against formidable foes, Asaph insisted. Against all odds, the Lord came through for the people… But now… there’s nothing. No divine action. The Babylonians came to Jerusalem, destroyed the city and temple, and got away with it.

Like a person experiencing extreme dizziness, Asaph and the people had a terrible spiritual vertigo which left them unable to get their balance and find their center.

Along with Asaph, in our horrible grief, we not only appeal to God, but we also insist, even tell God exactly what he must do, as if we were the Creator and Yahweh the creature. “Listen, Mr. Almighty God, you made a covenant with us and now you’re reneging on it with all this ridiculous silence and inaction.”

Yet, Asaph really knows better. He knows that, although the temple and the city are important as visible structures, the invisible God transcends all the tangible things we hold so tightly to.

We live in a day and age when all our religious structures are being dismantled, destroyed, done away with. Few persons now look to an institutional and visible building or system for their spirituality and worship.

And, although many believers may lament the changes and the disappearance of churches and religion, there still remains an invisible God to whom we can address – the very same God whom Asaph addressed all those millennia ago.

We are not, therefore, reduced to despair. In the end, it isn’t about buildings, ministries, programs, budgets, or church attendance – it’s about the source of life and hope in the absence of past knowable structures. It is a naked faith in the God who is there.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Ame

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So, do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Confidence is necessary for the Christian life. It’s not optional. One can only persevere through trouble with some confident hope.

It’s one thing to bear up under a hard circumstance for a few days or weeks. It’s altogether another thing for that same hardship to continue for months, even years.

Living with such adversity everyday makes one tired… really tired. Feelings of hopelessness slowly creep within. And, after a while, the person or group of people just want the madness to end. So, they simply give up, being lost in their troubles, feeling alone and bereft of options.

Without the confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and that the present is bad.

Instead, we can recall and remember the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity.

In earlier times, they were insulted and persecuted. Yet, they showed solidarity with others in similar situations. The believers were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was so much more than this present life and it’s possessions.

But the persecution and the insults continued… day after day… with no apparent end….

The Christians began to lose their grip on faith. They needed to reconnect with their purpose, with why they were Christians to begin with.

Originally, the reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. They understood that people have eternal value, not stuff, so the believers willingly focused their efforts in helping others.

However, over time, the band of believers lost their focus. All they could see was the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

What to do? Give up? Renege on faith? Adopt a “whatever will be, will be,” sort of philosophy?

No. Instead,

Remember what God has done for you.

Affirm what is right, just, and true.

Embrace faith and patience.

That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. Things were askew and not right. So, he complained to God about it. 

God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. 

The prophet was having a hard time, and it seemed God was only making things worse, not better.

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

Perhaps the most significant faith experience we can have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth we all must eventually come around to is that joy and security is independent of what’s going on around us. 

Even though we face difficulty, and even evil, confidence can still exist and thrive within us. We can still rejoice because we don’t need everything to go our way in order to be happy.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. For them to remain rooted within us, we must affirm our commitment to Christ daily. And that requires remembering.

What’s more, there is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals.

So, be mindful of the things which are most important to you; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety. Don’t throw away your spiritual confidence, just because things are continually hard.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen. – The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr