Psalm 59 – Victimization Needs a Voice

Oh, my God, deliver me from my enemies;
    put me out of reach from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from evildoers;
    save me from the bloodthirsty.
Look at how they lie in ambush for my life!
    Powerful people are attacking me, Lord—
        but not because of any error or sin of mine.
    They run and take their stand—
        but not because of any fault of mine.

Get up when I cry out to you!
    Look at what’s happening!
You are the Lord God of heavenly forces,
    the God of Israel!
Wake up and punish all the nations!
    Grant no mercy to any wicked traitor!

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
See what they belch out with their mouths:
    swords are between their lips!
        Who can listen to them?
But you, Lord, laugh at them.
    You mock all the nations.
I keep looking for you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold.
My loving God will come to meet me.
    God will allow me to look down on my enemies.

Don’t kill them, or my people might forget;
    instead, by your power
    shake them up and bring them down,
        you who are our shield and my Lord.
For the sin of their mouths,
    the words that they speak,
    let them be captured in their pride.
For the curses and lies they repeat,
        finish them off in anger;
        finish them off until they are gone!
Then let it be known to the ends of the earth
    that God rules over Jacob.

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
They roam about for food,
    and if they don’t get their fill,
    they stay all night.
But me? I will sing of your strength!
    In the morning I will shout out loud
    about your faithful love
        because you have been my stronghold,
        my shelter when I was distraught.
I will sing praises to you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold,
    my loving God. (Common English Bible)

David was in a major pickle.

He was wildly successful as a member of King Saul’s court and a captain in his army. David fought Saul’s battles and won major victories. And this put him in the position of being the object of jealousy from Saul. So much so, that the king was ready to snuff out David’s life. David had done everything Saul had asked of him, and he was now about to be repaid by becoming a hunted man.

Today’s psalm was crafted by David in this awkward space between being at home but about to be on the run. It was a time of high anxiety and hypervigilance, of trying to come to grips with what was happening and about to happen.

Honestly, I really don’t like it when people poo-poo and invalidate other people’s emotions.

Every feeling which comes up for us is meant to be acknowledged and paid attention to.

Otherwise, if every feeling is tossed into some internal trash bin, those emotions eventually come out sideways,  looking like the stereotypical uptight and inflexible person who chronically complains and irritates others with their stone-faced tight-lipped sanctimonious policing of another’s feelings.

Such persons are aghast that psalms like today’s are even in the Bible. Biblical scholars identify these psalms as “imprecatory” psalms because they are curses, giving vent to the bitter anger and painful wonderings of the inner person.

A few years back, I was a chaplain in a large care facility. One of the residents was a retired Episcopal priest. He developed a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it. However, getting rid of the tumor damaged his ability to speak.

So, when I came to see him after his return to the nursing home, he labored intensely just to get a simple sentence out. And after each struggle to speak he would swear and utter some expletive, then apologize to me.

Finally, I said to him, “There’s no need to apologize. You have spent your life using words to bless and help others and now that has been robbed of you. You are angry. I am angry. Let’s just sit here and swear together about it.”

We raged together about disease. We swore like sailors about injustice. We cried out to God for vengeance on evil (and I was secretly praying that no one would walk into the room while we were doing this).

Whereas psalms of lament express deep sadness, imprecatory psalms rage with deep-seated anger.

With no cursing of disease, sickness, and death, it comes out sideways in this unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. In fact, one day I was speaking with someone at work, and she said to me, “Everyone was so mean to each other yesterday that I went home and cried.”

What I am proposing here is that our anger, our rage, even our vengeance needs recognition, just like our sadness does. 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 wherever there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other is much higher.

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

Holy One, you do not distance yourself from the pain of your people, but in Jesus bear that pain with us and bless all who suffer at another’s hands. Make our hurting holy! With your cleansing love, bring healing and strength; and by your justice, lift us up so that we may again rejoice in you, through Christ, my Lord. Amen.

2 Samuel 1:4-27 – Express Your Grief

“What happened?” David asked. “Tell me.”

“The men fled from the battle,” he replied. “Many of them fell and died. And Saul and his son Jonathan are dead.”

Then David said to the young man who brought him the report, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?”

“I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,” the young man said, “and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’

“He asked me, ‘Who are you?’

“‘An Amalekite,’ I answered.

“Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’

“So, I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord.”

Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.

David said to the young man who brought him the report, “Where are you from?”

“I am the son of a foreigner, an Amalekite,” he answered.

David asked him, “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”

Then David called one of his men and said, “Go, strike him down!” So, he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed.’”

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
    How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,
    proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
    lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,
    may you have neither dew nor rain,
    may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
    the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,
    from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
    the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan—
    in life they were loved and admired,
    and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
    they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,
    weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
    who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!
    Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
    you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
    more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!
    The weapons of war have perished!” (New International Version)

Character is revealed by both attitude and action. It seems likely the Amalekite would have lived if he had any, at all.

But instead, the Amalekite tried to act as if he knew David. It became very apparent, he didn’t really know David, at all.

By claiming responsibility for King Saul’s death, the Amalekite sealed his own. David spent months outrunning and outwitting Saul, trying his best to stay alive, while at the same time, carefully avoiding killing Saul. In assuming Saul’s death would be good news to David, the Amalekite went full braggadocio, looking to impress, as well as get a reward.

He got a reward, alright.

David’s attitude could not be any more different than the Amalekite’s. Whereas the Amalekite had a small and selfish attitude, David had a magnanimous attitude. David had suffered much because of Saul, and yet held firm in his commitment to God and to the king.

Our attitudes and our actions truly reveal what is in our hearts.

Because David had an attitude which reflected that he knew God, he therefore genuinely grieved and lamented the deaths of both King Saul and Saul’s son, Jonathan.

Bereavement, grief, and lament are, unfortunately, scarce words in the English language. But those words were not strange or stingy with David. He shows us the good path to follow in facing significant loss and change.

David’s grief was not only personal but public. He crafted a lament and had everyone learn it and say it. Indeed, grief may be intensely personal, yet it most definitely needs a public outlet.

Tears, questions, sorrow, anger, anxiety, and sadness are all the normal and necessary expressions of working through the death of someone close to us. The only bad grief is unexpressed grief. It sits idle, deep inside one’s personhood. Over time, it becomes gangrene of the soul.

Many deaths are bittersweet. It may be an end of suffering for the deceased, but it is also the beginning of suffering for those left behind. Sometimes Christians forget that death is a result of humanity’s fall. There is nothing to rejoice over with death; it is something to mourn over.

We need to become comfortable with talking about death, bereavement, and all the emotions that come with it. Methinks this is a chief reason for so many improper attitudes, like that of the ancient Amalekite with David.

Unexpressed grief neither disappears nor goes away. It eventually comes out sideways, usually harming both ourselves and others.

To grieve and lament simply means that we tell our story – which requires someone to listen without criticism or invalidating our feelings.

David was able to respond the way he did because of his closeness to God. For even and especially God grieves over significant losses. It is the proper and right attitude.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest….

He did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him….

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him. Amen.
(Psalm 22:1-2, 24, 29, NRSV)

1 Samuel 24:1-22 – How to Handle An Enemy

David and Saul in the Cave by James J. Tissot (1836-1902)

After Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the Desert of En Gedi.” So, Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.

He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” With these words David sharply rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way.

Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’? This day you have seen with your own eyes how the Lord delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lay my hand on my lord, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. See that there is nothing in my hand to indicate that I am guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.

“Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Who are you pursuing? A dead dog? A flea? May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.”

When David finished saying this, Saul asked, “Is that your voice, David my son?” And he wept aloud. “You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. You have just now told me about the good you did to me; the Lord delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.”

So, David gave his oath to Saul. Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold. (New International Version)

Sometimes reconciliation is neither possible nor wise.

King Saul was unstable. Although initially appreciative of David’s service, Saul became jealous. And that jealousy eventually grew into suspicion, then paranoia.

It became so bad that David had to flee and went on the run. Saul was convinced David wanted his kingship, so he hunted him like an animal. He wanted him out of the limelight and out of the way – permanently.

There are times in everyone’s life that another person actively and intentionally seeks to do us harm. How do we handle such a situation? How might we respond in a way that gives us peace of mind?

David continually had enemies throughout his life. And the vast number of those who opposed him, did so despite the fact that David didn’t deserve it.

“We retaliate instead of reflect, and we burn hot in the flames of revenge rather than cool our heels in the pool of patience.”

Craig D. Lounsbrough

Saul came looking for David with an army five-times the size of David’s rag-tag group of men. Yet, Saul had no idea that he had ambled into being a sitting duck.

What would you do in that kind of situation?

Picture the person who gives you the most grief. Maybe they purposely speak bad about you or try and oppose you at any opportunity. Perhaps there is a boss or someone in authority who seeks to undermine you every chance they get.

And now, the tables are turned. You have the chance to publicly put them in their place. You can put an end to the madness. What are you going to do?

In David’s situation, his men made the logical assumption that God ordained the turn of events. So, go ahead and off Saul. Become the king. After all, God already told you that you would be king. Now he’s giving you the opportunity. It’s right there. Take it, man.

“Retaliation is a dog chasing its tail.”

Libba Bray

But David didn’t take advantage of having the upper hand. He didn’t kill Saul because he was convinced it wasn’t the right thing to do. In fact, David felt terrible for even considering the idea. He wasn’t going to take matters into his own hands.

So, David left it in the hands of God. Since God anointed him as the next king, David reasoned, then God would make it happen. He didn’t need to do God’s job for him. David’s theological perspective was this: God is my defender; God will take care of me; God will judge another’s sinful behavior.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a story in the importance and necessity of non-retaliation. What’s more, it’s a lesson in treating all people with respect, even if they don’t seem to deserve it, at all.

This lesson in no way infers that we sit idly by and refuse to hold another accountable for their actions. It just means we aren’t the judge, jury, and executioner.

Once Saul realized he had been a sitting duck, he repents… or does he? He admits to his wrong, even emotionally reacts to it. But here’s the bottom line to all overtures of repentance: It must result in a change of attitude and behavior. And Saul didn’t offer that.

So, the story ends pretty much as it began. There’s no reconciliation because there’s no true repentance on the part of Saul. The disturbed and paranoid king ends up continuing his murderous pursuit of David. *Sigh*

Folks like Saul have no intention of changing. They only want to hold onto their power and control. They’re only happy if others are giving them accolades and kudos. And if they’re not getting recognition, there’s hell to pay.

Beware of false repentance. Don’t be fooled by a person who has a pervasive pattern of self-interest, then, all of a sudden, feels sorry. It’s likely they’re doing that because they don’t have the upper hand – and they desperately want it back.

More importantly, don’t play their game. Instead, live by the ethics of God’s kingdom. You’ll be glad you did.

O God: Give me strength to live another day. Let me not turn coward in the face of its difficulties. Let me not lose faith in other people. Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery, or meanness. Preserve me from harm and keep me from harming others. Help me to keep my heart clean, and to not become disheartened by the evil of others. Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see the good in everything. Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness and make me a conduit of your blessing to others, in the name of the strong Deliverer, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 Samuel 31:1-13 – Warning Signs from a Tragic Life

The Philistines made war on Israel. The men of Israel were in full retreat from the Philistines, falling left and right, wounded on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines caught up with Saul and his sons. They killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua, Saul’s sons.

The battle was hot and heavy around Saul. The archers got his range and wounded him badly. Saul said to his weapon bearer, “Draw your sword and put me out of my misery, lest these pagan pigs come and make a game out of killing me.”

But his weapon bearer wouldn’t do it. He was terrified. So, Saul took the sword himself and fell on it. When the weapon bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So, Saul, his three sons, and his weapon bearer—the men closest to him—died together that day.

When the Israelites in the valley opposite and those on the other side of the Jordan saw that their army was in full retreat and that Saul and his sons were dead, they left their cities and ran for their lives. The Philistines moved in and occupied the sites.

The next day, when the Philistines came to rob the dead, they found Saul and his three sons dead on Mount Gilboa. They cut off Saul’s head and stripped off his armor. Then they spread the good news all through Philistine country in the shrines of their idols and among the people. They displayed his armor in the shrine of the Ashtoreth. They nailed his corpse to the wall at Beth Shan.

The people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul. Their valiant men sprang into action. They traveled all night, took the corpses of Saul and his three sons from the wall at Beth Shan, and carried them back to Jabesh and burned off the flesh. They then buried the bones under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted in mourning for seven days. (The Message)

Life is a process. Rarely does anything happen instantly. Human growth, maturation, life, and death unfold over years. So, a major life issue is attending to what process are we given to – a process which allows for human thriving – or a process that causes a failure to thrive.

King Saul sadly gave himself to a downward spiral of jealousy, paranoia, and poor decisions. His end was tragic. Yet perhaps we might learn some lessons in the form of warnings. Let’s consider the life of Saul as a cautionary tale, heeding us to avoid his foibles and pitfalls.

Unfortunately, Saul made deliberate choices in his life which led to his ignominious death. In fact, Scripture makes it plain that Saul died because of unfaithfulness:

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the Lord. So, the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14, NIV)

Premeditated, deliberate, conscious wrongdoing can only expect a predictable process of moral failure and divine judgment. Consider some observations from Saul’s life so that we will be kept from going down his path of destruction:

  • Saul made decisions which solely benefited himself, and not the entire community. He deliberately disobeyed orders from the prophet Samuel and tried to justify his behavior with a godly veneer (1 Samuel 13:1-14; 15:1-26). Later, King David engaged in some deliberate acts of sin and disobedience. Yet, David did not share Saul’s outcome because he humbled himself before God, admitted his guilt, and turned away from disobedience (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There always remains the opportunity to turn to God, as long as we are alive.
  • Saul never owned his bad decisions, and it led to his paranoia and warped thinking. Saul kept believing he was okay – and that everyone else was wrong or against him. If we ever get to the point of living with our sin as if it’s acceptable, then we need a prophet to come along and show us the error of our ways and beliefs. Saul had a prophet in his life: Samuel, who was one of the best. Yet, Saul often altered Samuel’s advice or dispensed with it altogether.
  • Saul’s wrongdoing did not always lead to immediate negative consequences. That is the typical nature of sin. It bites, but the pain isn’t felt until later. Saul was rejected by God as king. In reality, this rejection did not occur until Saul’s death. Whenever Saul made poor decisions, he felt gratification in the immediate moment. Later, however, he was tormented by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14). Conversely, the righteous person understands the principle of delayed gratification.
  • It wasn’t just Saul who suffered because of his own jealousy and paranoia. Other people suffered, as well. David clearly suffered emotional and spiritual duress because of Saul’s jealousy. The priests and the people of Nob were mercilessly murdered because of Saul’s paranoia (1 Samuel 22:6-19). We must be quite careful to avoid being shortsighted about our decisions. Just because we might neither anticipate nor see any negative consequences to others doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Sin destroys, period, whether we know it, or not.
  • Saul’s identity and worth as a person was dependent on his title and position as king. So, when that position was threatened, Saul thought his very personhood was in grave danger. The truth is that our worth as humans is not tied to whether we have a lofty position, or a particular pedigree. Our dignity as people is forever tethered to bearing the divine image.

A healthy life process of decision-making which includes consulting wise voices and collaborating with people of integrity will surely result in good things, not bad. So, let us walk in the narrow path of wisdom, while continually forsaking the broad road that leads to destruction.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

*Above: woodcut of King Saul’s death by George Wigland, 1860