Many a time have they fought against me from my youth up
may Israel now say.
Yea, many a time have they vexed me from my youth up,
but they have not prevailed against me.
The plowers plowed upon my back
and made long furrows.
But the righteous Lord
hath hewn the snares of the ungodly in pieces.
Let them be confounded and turned backward
as many as have evil will at Sion.
Let them be even as the grass growing upon the house-tops,
which withereth afore it be plucked up;
whereof the mower filleth not his hand,
neither he that bindeth the sheaves his bosom.
So that they who go by say not so much as, The Lord prosper you,
we wish you good luck in the Name of the Lord.
Lovely, isn’t it, this psalm? Especially that bit about wanting the enemy to wither and scorch in the sun and all who see it to say, ha ha, too bad for you. It’s as close to a cursing psalm as the Songs of Ascents come.
Here’s what I know to do with cursing psalms. The first thing is to spiritualize them. The enemy becomes something, rather than someone. Let’s pick my favorite enemies to pick on, the dratted harpies. Boy howdy, have they vexed me from my youth up. They’ve worn not just furrows in my back (anyone else need a good deep tissue massage from the stress these screaming uglies cause?) but furrows in my brain, so they can send their attacks along nice deep grooves. They don’t even have to try very hard. They just start the attack, and my brain-ruts do the rest. Very convenient for them.
But God’s hewn their traps in pieces. We birds can fly! And as we wing our way out of the harpies’ reach, we look back and say, I hope you wither in your own scorn, you ugly wretches. I hope no one ever listens to you again.
That’s one way to read a cursing psalm, and it’s a good way. I find it super helpful to read such psalms as battle cries to help me fight the good fight against the harpies and any other (seemingly) internal enemies I encounter.
But there’s something else we can do with these psalms. We can read them from a perspective not our own. We can read them from the point of view of someone who has actually experienced oppression, like the psalmist had. Israel had been taken captive and forced to labor against its will. The people had been trapped, ensnared.
In our world today, tens of millions of people are enslaved, forced to work long hours at hard labor, in brick kilns and fish farms and brothels. When you put this psalm in their mouths, you realize just how tame it is. (Psalm 137 hits a little closer to the mark, don’t you think?)
When we pray the cursing psalms on behalf of the oppressed of this world, we begin to shift out of our own perspective and to see the world through other eyes, eyes that have seen cruelty and injustice first hand. We begin to understand why someone might pray such words. We begin to have compassion on the oppressed and downtrodden, and our compassion prompts us to pray other prayers, for justice and freedom and healing.
And perhaps, if we’re honest, the cursing psalms function as mirrors, holding up our own unforgiveness or vindictiveness, our desire to take matters into our own hands and play God, insisting on What I Want rather than surrendering to Thy Will Be Done.
But even more, the fact that such psalms are in the Bible at all, and in the Bible’s prayer-book, allows me to bring all my ugliness to God and say, “Look. This is what I want. These people here, and here, and here? They’re mean and they’re nasty and I don’t like them and I’d like you to off them. Or at least make them break out in ugly itchy hives, okay?” These psalms give me permission to bring my whole self, not just the pretty parts, to God. They tell me that God can handle all of me, even the parts of me that I can’t handle.
This psalm, I’ll admit, and others like it make me uncomfortable. But that’s probably a good thing. Discomfort causes disequilibrium, which forces me to wrestle, to expand my vision, to take something new into account, and to reorient my understanding. I don’t always like that expansive reorientation (always? do I ever like it?), but life is not about What I Want or What I Like. It’s about learning to live more fully, more truthfully, and more humbly. It’s about learning to say, and mean, Thy Will Be Done.