Disturbing Psalms

"The Scream of Nature", Edvard Munch, 1893
I have a confession to make. Maybe it’s not the type of admission you would expect from an ordained minister. Nevertheless, as I grow old, more unconstrained I feel to express my thoughts and feelings outside the usual expectations for a "man of God."  We (clergy in particular, and religious people in general) have complicated so much the Christian faith, even though Jesus Christ used to simplify religion.  But that is not my confession.  My confession is that I have had a love-hate relationship with the book of Psalms through the years.

When I was a kid at church I was taught that Psalms was a book written by King David: that shepherd turned hero that eventually became king of Israel.  As a child, I was fascinated by the usual “superheroes” like Superman, Spiderman, and Batman.  But I also was fascinated by a hero that wasn’t part of the Marvel/DC universe: King David. So to know that my hero King David also wrote a complete book of poems and songs was awesome!

Fast forward academic theological education, and many years of studying Scriptures as a personal spiritual discipline and pastoral vocation my comprehension of the book of Psalms changed.  I learned that Psalms is not the product of one person (David), but the creation of whole communities.  Psalms is a collection of poems and songs from different authors (possibly including David) in different times and contexts.  In my childhood, I was usually familiarized with beautiful psalms of praise and cheerful worship. I also was inspired by Psalm 23 with its images of sheep and green pastures, and Psalm 1 with its description of the destiny of righteous people.  But as I grew up I became more aware of psalms that weren't cheerful or inspiring.  Those psalms are the ones that never get used as "Call to Worship" in our Sunday Service liturgies.  Many of those psalms, which scholars call "psalms of lament," are pretty somber in their content. Some of those include even horrible and dehumanizing expressions (for example, Psalm 137.9: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!"). Some Psalms show a strange confluence of despair and hope, but others are entirely expressions of unhopeful despair.

Recently I read a Psalm that felt disturbing. Psalm 88 is considered as "a cry for help."  I read it several times looking for that part when the psalmist change the tone of the song turning the lament into praise and celebration but couldn’t find it. Here’s how this Psalm ends:
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. 14 O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? 15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. 16 Your wrath has swept over me;  your dread assaults destroy me. 17 They surround me like a flood all day long;  from all sides they close in on me. 18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.
The more I read these lines, the more disturbed I felt. Why would a psalm like this one become part of the Bible? Why should something like this one be considered "holy scripture"? Then it hit me: Psalms like these give voice to feelings of sadness and anger so deep that can’t be easily expressed.  Psalms like these remind us that there are moments in life when hopes are weak and frustrations are strong.  Psalms like these become an invitation to keep addressing God no matter how you feel, even if your prayer is to express disappointment, fear, or irritation.  Psalms like these constitute a call to keep praying even during your worst times for the basis of prayer is the conviction that "someone up there" is hearing: “But I, O Lord, cry out to you” (88.13).

As my understanding of these things grows, my love-hate relationship with the book of Psalms becomes stronger on the side of love.  Those ugly and somber psalms are part of who I am. Those disturbing words are like a mirror that helps me to accept that it's ok to be fragile, fearful, and weak (in other words, "human") as I cross over difficult times. Even then, I'll not be alone: there's someone to whom "cry out".

Soli Deo Gloria.


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