The Curses of Psalm 69

Psalm 69 always comes around on a Friday in the Daily Office in the Episcopal tradition. It’s fitting, if you think of every Sunday is a “little Easter” and every Friday as a “little Good Friday.” Why not include the Psalm that includes these Good Friday words?

They gave me gall to eat, *
and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.

Psalm-69-29-web-nltThis morning, Psalm 69 came around again and I had a vivid memory of being in the chapel of the first church I joined in Portland in a dark, rainy Friday morning in 1987. The priest, deacon, and I were about to say morning prayer. The deacon would write the psalms for each day on a clipboard he’d attached to the chapel wall. Marker held aloft, he paused and turned to the priest to ask: “Shall we leave out the curses in Psalm 69?”

Psalm 69 is one of those psalms that gives the Bible a bad name, gives God a bad name,  section is marked as optional in our collection of daily readings.

Psalm 69 is in a special category of psalm called an “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalm. It begins familiarly enough:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.

The psalmist is surrounded by enemies, and God is his or her only hope. Familiar enough, right? The psalmist prays fro God’s unfailing help. But then, two dozen verses in, the psalm takes a twist:

 Let the table before them be a trap
and their sacred feasts a snare.

Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see,
and give them continual trembling in their loins.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.

Let them be wiped out of the book of the living
and not be written among the righteous.

Really? Of course we want to leave out the curses. Most people do. And yet. The curses remind us that the people who wrote the psalms believed in a God who could handle all of their hateful, vengeful feelings of which, I imagine, in their collective heart of hearts, they must have been just a little bit ashamed. The angry, cursing psalms are not an indictment against an angry, vindictive God, but rather a confession of an angry, vindictive people. The God whom they try to co-opt into their pain is a God who can handle the whole infinite range of human emotion–that’s the blessing of the cursing psalms.

Yes, we can leave out the curses of Psalm 69. But isn’t it good to know that we can leave them in?

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