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“Praying in Anger” in Psalm 109 by Joe Ellis — May 16, 2024

Last week as we began our introduction to the Psalms, I quoted John Calvin saying that there is not a single emotion that a person can experience that are not reflected back to you in the Psalms. The Psalms are like a mirror to our souls. Indeed, the full spectrum of emotions are on display in the Psalms — from joy and thanksgiving to sadness and bitter anger. And let me remind us of what is so significant about our emotional life having a place in Scripture. It's not just, “Oh, isn’t that so nice to have a piece of poetry that I can relate to” — No, it goes far deeper than that. After all, the Psalms are not only poems, they are prayers. Take that in! These are prayers to God, the Creator of Heavens and Earth! So when Calvin says, “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not represented” in the Psalms, he is also saying that there is not an emotion of which you can be conscious that you can’t express to God in prayer. The Psalms model how to bring our deepest emotions before God in prayer. And why is that important? Because our emotions are connected to the deepest part of ourselves. If we can’t bring our emotions to God in prayer, we can’t bring ourselves to God in prayer.

Today, we are going to pray to God in the mode of our anger — anger is a difficult emotion for many Christian — maybe we take anger as a sign that the peace of God isn’t guarding our hearts and minds — but the way Paul says we get that peace of mind is through prayer, which certainly includes talking to God from the place of anger. Talking to God in those times when you’ve felt hurt, wounded, unjustly accused — when you feel your blood boil, and your breathing get shallow, when you want to just look for someone to fight. Can you think of a time when you felt that way, when you felt really angry? (If you can’t remember feeling that angry — that’s really important to notice as well, maybe ask what it is about anger that’s so frightening?) But, if you can, call to mind some experiences of being really angry, and let them sit alongside Psalm 109 as we read it.

Listen to David as he prays from his anger:

Verses 1-5:

O God, whom I praise.

Do not remain silent,

For wicked and deceitful men

have opened their mouths against me;

they have spoken against me with lying tongues.

With words of hatred they surround me,

They attack me without cause.

In return for my friendship they accuse me,

But I am a person of prayer.

They repay me evil for good.

And hatred for my friendship.

Notice a really good first step in prayers born of anger — it's telling God about what has happened, what’s going on. David is slightly vague here, but that’s probably to give you a bit of space to identify with his prayer. Telling God what’s going on when I’m angry can be really hard for me to do. I don’t often assume God wants to hear why I am angry. If I pray out of anger, I mostly tell God what I want him to do. But honestly, for me, my anger isn’t a signal to pray. That’s probably a growth area for me to get to the point where I can realize, “I’m angry, and God is the One whom I can talk to about my anger.” That is the first invitation of this Psalm — simply telling God what’s going on. Of course He’s omniscient, He knows what’s going on, but something powerful happens when you tell someone who cares for you what’s behind your pain — even if the person already knows.

But sometimes the anger is so great that you want to move right into telling God what to do. Out of his pain, David cries out:

Verses 6-12:

Appoint an evil man to oppose him;

Let an accuser stand at his right hand.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty,

And may his prayers condemn him.

May his days be few;

May another take his place of leadership.

May his children be fatherless

And his wife a widow.

May his children be wandering beggars’

May they be driven from their ruined homes.

May a creditor seize all he has;

May strangers plunder the fruits of his labour.

May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

Sometimes we need to pray prayers like that, trusting that God is bigger, stronger, and wiser, than whatever we might be praying at any particular time. Sometimes we feel indeed so full of anger and rage, we need to just pour the boiling anger out to Him, and trust that God will hold space for us to vent.

But venting is just a first step — venting in itself doesn’t provide the experience we need for deeper healing. In order to explore how this deeper healing can happen, I’m going to suggest a radical shift to how we interpret this previous section of the Psalm 109 that I just read. Ancient Hebrew and Greek don’t use punctuation. So, one of the challenges for biblical scholars is to figure out when the author is quoting someone else. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a great example of this — throughout Paul’s letter he is quoting the Corinthians.

In Psalm 109, the NIV has verses 6-19 as a prayer — David is speaking his own words to God about what he wants God to do to his enemies. However, there is an incredibly strong argument that in verses 6-19 David is quoting his accusers. He’s telling God what his enemies are saying about him. This interpretation is based on the shift in pronouns throughout the Psalm. When it's David speaking, he refers to his accusers in the plural (i.e. they). David also speaks in first person (I, me, my). Whereas in 6-19, when David is quoting his accusers, they are talking about only one person who they call ‘him’, which is referring to David. Notice how different this Psalm reads when you hear David telling God what his accusers are saying about him. I’ll start again from the beginning (from Robert Altar’s translation):

Verses 1-5:

God of my praise, do not be silent.

For the wicked’s mouth, the mouth of deceit,

has opened against me,

They spoke to me with lying tongue.

And words of hatred swarmed round me—

They battle me for no cause.

In return for my love they accuse me,

Though my prayer is for them.

And they offer me evil in return for good

And hatred in return for my love:

Now, here David begins quoting his accusers (notice the difference in pronouns) — by quoting his accusers, David remains in the stage of simply telling God what’s happened. Notice how differently you hear these verses.

Verses 6-19:

Appoint a wicked man over him,

Let an accuser stand at his right.

When he is judged, let him come out guilty,

And his prayer be an offence.

Let his days be few,

May another man take his post.

May his children become orphans

And his wife a widow.

May his children wander and beg,

Driven out from the ruins of their homes.

May the lender snare all that he has

And may strangers plunder his wealth.

May no one extend to him kindness

An no one pity his orphans.

May his offspring be cut off,

In the next generation his name wiped out.

May the wrong of his fathers be recalled by the Lord

And his mother’s offence not be wiped out.

Let these be ever before the Lord,

That He cut off from the earth their name.

Because he did not remember to do kindness

And pursue the poor and the needy,

The heartsore, to put him to death.

He loved a curse, may it come upon him,

He desired not blessing—may it stay far from him.

He donned curse as his garb—

May it enter his innards like water

And like oil in his bones.

May it be like a garment he wraps round him at all times.”

Notice how differently you hear these words as David recounts the painful words that his accusers have levied against him. Notice what happens in your own heart as you hear these words. It breaks your heart. Can you imagine someone saying to you, “May his children wander and beg / Driven out from the ruins of their homes?” You can imagine how different it is to hear such a prayer. No doubt that would make you angry, too. David told God about his anger at hearing those words.

Anger is often like a suit of armour that protects us, and it can be like a sword that attacks others — when used like a suit of armour or a sword, anger is a secondary emotion. That means anger can often be used to protect or defend a more vulnerable part of ourselves. In the first version of the Psalm at the start of this sermon (the one without the quotations), David was using his anger to defend and attack. In anger, David says to God, “May his children wander and beg.” Again, we know that we can come to God with our secondary emotions. But the danger is if we only know how to come to God wearing a suit of armour, we’re only going to let him get so close. We won’t let him into our more vulnerable selves. That’s the difference you feel when you hear that section as David quoting his accusers — in quoting his accusers, he is beginning to reveal what is underneath the suit of armour that is his anger. As he tells about what his accusers have said, we see him getting in touch with his wounded, vulnerable, hurting, afraid self.

Let me just pause and say that anger isn’t always a suit of armour or a sword — a secondary emotion. Sometimes, we have deep anger that we’re afraid of, and we might protect ourselves from that anger through another emotion like sadness. Yes, emotions can be pretty complicated!

David deepens his engagement with God, telling Him what his accusers have been saying, and then David goes back to praying in his own voice (note the shift in pronouns again). Listen to how His prayer moves you. In verse 20, David begins with a prayer that is certainly an attack (he asks that his accusers words be turned back on them, and then he moves into a prayer of such tenderness and depth:

Verses 20-31:

May this be the plight of my accusers from the Lord,

And those who speak against my life.

And You, O Lord, Master,

Act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,

For Your kindness is good. O Save me!

For poor and needy am I,

And my heart is pierced within me.

Like a lengthening shadow I go off,

I am shaken away like the locust.

My knees falter from fasting

And my flesh is stripped of fat.

As for me, I become a reproach to them.

They see me, they shake their heads.

Help me, O Lord, my God

Rescue me as befits Your kindness,

That they may know that Your hand it is,

It is You, O Lord, Who did it.

Let them curse, and You, You will bless.

They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.

Let my accusers don disgrace,

And let them wrap round like a robe their shame.

I highly acclaim the Lord with my mouth,

And in the midst of the many I praise Him,

For He stands at the needy’s right hand

To rescue him from his condemners.

There is certainly still a bit of armour throughout this prayer. There is still a bit of shield and sword scattered throughout (“Let my accusers don disgrace, they will rise and be shamed”) — and that’s fine, prayer is about praying as we are, not praying as we should be. But the journey in prayer is a journey deeper into the heart. You will notice that is the path David walks. He takes off his armour to let God see his pierced heart. In this prayer, he begins to let go of his shield to let God be his protection: “Let them curse, and You, You will bless.” In prayer he sets aside his sword, and calls upon the Lord for His protection: “Save me! For poor and needy am I. Rescue me as befits your kindness.” 

Let me say once again, sometimes we come into prayer fully dressed out in our armour, and armed to the hilt. And God can meet us there — but it's very difficult to get close to someone in a suit of armour. This Psalm invites us, in prayer, to show God our anger by telling Him what has happened that was so painful, so hurtful, so frightening, so unacceptable. The Psalms invite you to sit with those experiences and emotions as long as you need. But they also show us how to begin gently removing our armour to let God tend to our deeper wounds.

The journey of prayer is a journey deep into the heart — throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that He will send His Spirit as a guide. Yes, Jesus has sent His Spirit, who will guide you into these deeper parts of yourself, but He has also sent His Spirit to other believers as well. Through other believers who are wise in the way of the heart, God’s Spirit can guide you deeper into your own heart. Through other believers who are wise in the ways of the heart, God’s Spirit can guide you into praying from these deeper parts of your self. These deep parts of self can be scary, confusing places to venture, and often times we avoid them at all costs.

This Pentecost, remember that God not only sent His Spirit to you and I as individuals, but God has sent His Spirit to our neighbours as well. And through wise Spirit-filled neighbours, God guides us into praying from the deepest parts of our selves. My counsellor and spiritual director has been a guide for me in this way — he begins each of our sessions with this prayer, may it be yours as well:

“Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the depths of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the spring of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow; so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making. Out of the deep I cry to you, O God. Amen.”


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