Monday, November 5, 2007

Reflection on Psalm 149

“Hallelujah! Sing to the Lord a new song, God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful,” the Sunday School director enthusiastically announced to the children in worship. “Let the children of Zion be joyful,” she continued as she handed out tambourines made with paper plates and dried beans hidden inside. “Let them praise their maker’s name with dancing; let them sing praise with tambourine and harp,” she shouted joyfully as the children danced around in circles, up and down the center aisle of the church; spilling beans out of the cracks of their obviously professionally made paper instruments. From my pew, I laughed as beans bounced and rolled underneath the pews for a joyful discover by the sexton later.

And then, the infamous second part to Psalm 149 came. The teacher handed out aluminum, double edged swords to each child proclaiming loudly, “Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand, to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples…” The children ran around the sanctuary like little puritans who had just slain their first witch, waving their bloody swords above their heads, and shouting “Praise God, Praise God!” It was “Lord of the Flies” come to kindergarten Sunday School. The scene was what some older Lutherans may have considered “slightly uncomfortable.”

OK, the teacher did not actually hand out swords to the children. The teacher actually skipped the whole scene of the faithful joyfully seeking vengeance with the two edged sword. Apparently, she thought the image from the Psalm was uncomfortable and inappropriate for children. I, on the other hand, saw the vision of the children quite clearly as I continued to read the Psalm from the church bulletin. The words just popped out at me, I could not help it. There they were for every adult to see. And, in church the words melodically sang from our lips.

“Let the praises of God be in their throat
and a two-edged sword in their hand,
to wreak vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples…”

There is just something wrong with that. These words are not only inappropriate for children; heck, these words are inappropriate for adults. Has anyone who has sought vengeance on behalf of the Lord really done a good job at it? Think crusades. Think abortion clinic bombers. Think jihad. Politicians are constantly quoting God in order to legitimate their own bloodshed. Radio talk show hosts are constantly trying to convince us that God is on our side. Do we really know that? How would we know who God’s targets are anyway? Does God whisper into politician’s ears the targets they are to go after? Even if we went after God’s targets instead of our own, does God accept the death of six year old children as merely a sad consequence of seeking the greater good? Does God speak in terms of collateral damage in order to soften the fact that a child molded and shaped with God’s own hands was prematurely put to death? The words from this Psalm are not appropriate words. They should not have been spoken.

If a non-Christian were visiting church while this text was read, they would be horrified. They would think that Christians were terrible inciters of violence. “What happened to ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord?’” they might think. “What happened to Jesus’ forgiveness?” they would ask. Leaving the service early, they would have to assume that we were some sort of cult.

How would you reconcile these words with others in the bible?

Romans 12:19-21:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Unless, I tell you that I hate them, then disregard the overcome evil with good thing and kill them for me because I’m too lazy to do it myself, sincerely God.

Luke 6.35:
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Unless, God gets up on the wrong side of bed, then God is anything but kind to the wicked. In that case, ignore the love your enemies bit and kill like hyenas.

I have problems with this Psalm. I am not certain if you noticed. But I feel obligated to wrestle with it anyway. That is why I am paid as an ordained minister after-all; to wrestle with biblical texts and present the carnage to everyone afterwards. And, as I wrestled with it on the hardwood floors of my office this week, I actually pinned it down and took a good look at it. In doing so, I noticed something very small, but powerful in it. It was so powerful that the Psalm actually did a reversal, threw me back, and pinned me to the floor.

I noticed that the Psalm actually does spell out who the enemies of God are. And, it is not simply any old nation or people whom God randomly chooses to be upset with. This text is not one that can be used to justify war against wicked and evil people. Actually, it says nothing about the wicked and evil. With my eyes opened to the truth, I fearfully realized, for the first time, that God’s enemies are those who forget the poor. Read close verse four and you will see that God adorns the poor with victory. Presumably, it is to the poor that the Lord provides a two-edged sword to wreak vengeance. The Psalm started to swing its sword at me, and I did not like it.

I would have loved to push this text off on the junk landlord we had after college who took two months to replace a window that blew out in a blizzard. We had virtually no money at the time, and the local power company was charging us to pay for heating the entire world. I wanted justice then. I deserved justice then. He was making us even poorer, and he did not care. He was buying muscle cars with my rental checks. Yes, this text speaks clearly to him, but it also speaks to me today. Since that time I have proven my American worth by putting my wealth, not in muscle cars, but in equally useless stuff. I have so much stuff that I have to find a special room to store it all. All of that potential to help the poor has been locked away in closets and rooms around the house. “For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In a very real way, I have locked away my heart in those closets and rooms also. That is sad.

Listen, do you clanging swords? They’re coming for me. I’m dead. That’s it! I’m dead. I wrestled with this text and the text won. It has taken its two edged sword and driven it straight into my treasure; straight into my heart. I should not be surprised. The writer of Hebrews warned us that “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Here comes the army, time to face the music.

As most patients will tell you, though it is painful and has a difficult recovery, heart surgery is not a bad thing. Heart surgery can save your life. Heart surgery has a way of putting things into perspective as the bad blockages of the past have been cut away or bypassed completely to allow new blood to flow. Heart surgery is a good thing. Perhaps, we could all use a little divine heart surgery from time to time; cut away the apathy to allow love and compassion to flow freely once again. Another word we Christians use for divine heart surgery is: forgiveness. This divine heart surgery is not forgiveness that simply says, “yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it, continue to live as you like, God will take care of it in the end.” This divine heart surgery is the kind of forgiveness that completely cuts out the rot, and allows us to live in healthier ways. And, according to God, a healthy prescription for recovery is seeking care and justice for the poor.

One student at Concordia College, my college, seemingly went off the deep end when he sold his new Christmas gift of a sports car, his stereo, and most of his clothes; moved out of the dorms; and moved into the homeless shelter two blocks away, offering both the money from his sold items and his extra time to the shelter. I’m sure that his parents were proud; especially about the sports car. I write that sarcastically. But, God was proud. God’s heart surgery on this young man was wildly successful. The forgiveness the young man received actually transformed his life. If only all heart surgeries were as successful. May we pray that they might be.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.