What kind of prayers would you publish if you were God?

Why are the "vengeance" psalms in the Bible? How does God deal with critical people? Are there degrees of inspiration?

Alden Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington.

Whenever I come to the prayers of the Old Testament, I have difficulty in re straining my enthusiasm, for they have helped me greatly in solving two problems of Christian experience and theology. In fact, my study of Old Testament prayers has brought together these two, apparently distinct, but equally thorny problems, and has shown how one is actually the solution to the other. Now whenever two miserable and unhappy people can get together in a marriage that is both a joy to experience and a joy to behold, that has to be good news. This chapter tells a story some thing like that.

Now for the two problems. The first one focuses on the psalms: the violence, the self-righteousness, the God-forsakenness, so boldly proclaimed therein. How could inspired writers be so virulent? Is it right for a man of God to breathe vengeance on his enemies? In short, many psalms seem to reflect an experience far from the Christian ideal. For Christians who claim the Bible as the Word of God, the problem is particularly acute, for we cannot simply dismiss a portion of Scripture if it does not suit our fancy. If we wish to remain within that heritage that claims the Bible as the Word of God, we really have only two choices: either we can avoid the difficult parts, or we can try to come to grips with them. This chapter will attempt the latter approach.

False politeness

The second problem is more difficult to define, but it has to do with the polite distance that sometimes separates a Christian and God, a distance that makes it difficult to be frank and open with one's Maker. I suspect this problem is particularly acute for conservative Christians who have grown up with a deep appreciation of God's holiness that sometimes borders on fear. There is, of course, a proper fear of the Lord, but there is an improper fear, as well, one that is closer to panic than to respect. In my own experience, this problem did not manifest itself so much as panic, but as an excessive politeness that left my relationship with Him ordinary and superficial. Somehow I felt reluctant to tell God where it hurt and when. I was reluctant to confess to Him that I did not under stand His ways. If my experience was anemic, I hesitated to admit it. I some how felt that I had to keep a smile pasted on my face to show Him that I was indeed one of His happy children and that all was going well on earth.

Looking back on that experience, I think I have discovered why I tended to be so polite with God: I would cite a couple horror stories (Uzzah, the bears and the boys, etc.), a few proverbs (the "abominations" [cf. Prov. 3:32; 12:22; 28:9]), a choice morsel from Ecclesiastes ("Be not rash with your mouth" [Eccl. 5:2]).* Such passages, along with a few other oddments from Scripture, all mingled together in the dark recesses of my mind to produce an ominous effect. All these bits and pieces were straight from Scripture, but I don't recall that they were ever being brought forcefully to my attention at any particular point in time. Perhaps I was just a rather sensitive youngster who tended to overreact to rebukes. I don't know. But in any event, my selective memory produced a caricature of God that counteracted my polite public confessions of a God of love.

In fact, if you had asked me at any time during my experience about the kind of God I served, I would not have breathed the slightest complaint. I served a good God who loved me and cared for me. But in a sense, I was forced to say those nice things about Him, for back there in the dimly lit passages of my mind lay poor Uzzah and the 42 boys; right close by stood God with a big stick. So I developed the habit of being quite careful of what I did and said in God's presence. My prayers were polite. Any agony of soul was kept well under cover. After all, who wanted to become an abomination to the Lord?

Now bring the two problems together: the violent and passionate words of the psalms and my polite little prayers to the great God of the universe. You can imagine my initial shock when I actually began to read the psalms. Do you mean to tell me that those were God's men, speaking for God and under the influence of His Spirit? And the Lord did not strike them dead? Such wild prayers and here they were in my Bible! But maybe you haven't read the psalms lately and need a sample to remind you of the kinds of things that at one time threatened to curl my hair. Let me share with you a few of the more lively examples.

Pride of place must go to Psalm 137:9. Here the psalmist breathes out his hatred against one of Israel's longtime enemies, the Edomites, concluding his "prayer" with the words: "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" Then there is Psalm 17, a good one to lay alongside the New Testament story of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14): "Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit" (verse 1); "If thou testest me, thou wilt find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress" (verse 3); "My steps have held fast to thy paths, my feet have not slipped" (verse 5). Here was a man truly thankful that he was not like other men. Finally there is Psalm 22. One of God's men had the gall actually to claim that God had forsaken him (verse 1). Further more, this same psalmist bluntly suggested that there was a certain injustice on the part of the Lord, for the Lord had listened to his fathers' prayers, but not to his own (verses 2-6). Such bravery. Such opening of one's mouth in the presence of God.

I finally awoke to the fact that God's people had been quite frank with Him all along. I had simply robbed myself of a great privilege by letting a few stories and a few lines of Scripture loom large and out of proportion to their worth. If David and the psalmists could be open with God, why couldn't I? And that was the beginning of a real friendship with my God.

The problem of inspiration

But what about the role of the Holy Spirit and inspiration as it relates to these brash prayers? Even though I was willing to admit that certain parts of Scripture were more helpful to me than others, I was not at all willing to concede that there might be degrees of inspiration. And I would still hold most vigorously to a strong position on inspiration. I reject the view that some of the biblical writers were more inspired than others. Either a man is inspired or he is not. As a conservative Christian, I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). That is actually one of the great strengths of the evangelical position, for we can not be tempted to take out our scissors and snip away that which we cannot understand or cannot accept. Scripture is Scripture and we must continue to grapple with it until we make our peace with it and with God.

How then can we explain those pas sages of Scripture in which we clearly see a difference in the experience of one writer when compared with another? For example, "Father, forgive them," the famous prayer of Jesus for His enemies (Luke 23:34), reflects an experience far superior to that of the psalmist who asks the Lord to smash his opponents (Ps. 69:22-28). We must recognize that difference or we run the risk of wrongfully appealing to the psalmists to support our perverted passions. I think it is safe to conclude that both the mental and the spiritual capabilities of the various writers of Scripture varied greatly and this variation is reflected in their writings. Yet the quality of inspiration is constant throughout.

Perhaps a mundane illustration might help. If I take a stack of wet wood and a stack of dry wood and put the same match to both, what will be the result? One will burn bright, clear, and hot. The other will burn reluctantly, with much wheezing and a great deal of smoke. Both are burning, both have been lit by the same match, but the difference in the quality of the raw material makes a great deal of difference in the fire. One can, however, still get warm by both fires, and for some purposes, the smoky, slow-burning fire may even be superior.

So it is with God's inspired men. The same Spirit kindles them all; some will burn more brightly than others, but the Lord can work through them all. We might be inclined to blame the match for the poor fire. Any fault, however, lies not in the match, but in the soggy wood. And surprisingly, in spite of soggy wood, anyone who so desires can be properly warmed even by that smoky fire.

Content and form

In the college classroom I sometimes draw a comparison between the biblical writers and the productions of the first-year students in college writing. Our particular grading system calls for two marks to be placed on each composition: one for the content and one for the mechanics. Thus a student who is a creative writer but a poor technician can actually receive both an A (content) and an F (mechanics). With reference to the inspired writers, we could perhaps give one mark for spiritual capability and one for mental. In actual practice, it would be rather difficult to assign marks, except in some of the more notable cases, such as we have already mentioned from the Psalms. And I would hasten to add that God's messengers never fall below a C-, the lowest mark "honorable" in our system, in spiritual or mental capabilities. In other words, some of the Bible writers may be more brilliant than others, but each is bright enough. Some undoubtedly have a deeper experience than others, but each has an experience deep enough to be used by God.

We should also note that the brilliant student may not always be the best one for the job. Average students who really have had to work for their marks some times make the best teachers and the best family doctors. The same holds true of the biblical writers. The varying skills and insights of the various writers can meet the needs of a variety of people. The simple gospel stories may be just what some need, while others prefer to be stimulated by the more complicated logic of the Pauline correspondence. In my case, I needed some really violent prayers from the psalms. So in the end, God's purposes are served very well by the great variety of writers and the differences in their experiences. Through this variety, there is something in Scripture for everyone.

But returning to the "problem" psalms, what is the truth that God is trying to tell me, assuming that He is not trying to tell me to smash my enemies? Quite frankly, I think the great "truth" of many of the psalms lies in the openness and the frankness that characterizes the relationship between the psalmist and God. Even though these men still have much growing to do, they have great confidence in God. They trust Him. And they can tell Him when and where it hurts.

We should note, however, that there are more signs of growth in the Psalms than might first meet the eye. For example, the psalmists are generally quite willing to grant God the privilege of taking vengeance on their enemies. That is not a "natural" human response. Our human tendency is to take justice into our own hands: "If you even touch me, I'll smash you!" The classic biblical example of this burning thirst for vengeance is found in the experience of Lamech, the descendant of Cain: "I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (Gen. 4:23, 24).

That is precisely what happens in all those troubled areas of our world where strife never ceases: a constant battle to strike the last and the heaviest blow, a constant maneuvering to thrust in the last and most cutting word. That is human nature. But the psalmists were willing to leave it to the Lord, a truly remark able step in the right direction. They may still be seething, but the Lord will have to be the One to even the score. There are exceptions to this pattern, even in the Psalms, but it is truly remarkable how the psalmists seem to feel that if they pour out their feelings to God, all will be well.

Praying with the psalmists

So how do I pray, now that I have heard such lively, vivid, and almost dis respectful prayers in the Psalms? In the first place, my polite, all-is-well approach has disappeared. I have discovered after considerable reflections that I had, in effect, fallen into a form of righteousness by works. For when I felt that my feelings were unworthy to lay before the Lord and that my soul was too sordid to appear in His presence, I was essentially telling myself that I had to tidy myself up first before I could come to Him. If only those with clean hands and a pure heart can ascend the hill of the Lord (Ps. 24:4), then who will help the sinner? I cannot stifle my feelings of vengeance or my pharisaical pride. Only the Lord can cure ills of that sort. In fact, there is a beautiful verse in Acts that has helped me to see the larger picture. After the resurrection when Peter and the apostles were speaking before the Jewish leaders, Peter declared that God had exalted Jesus "to give repentance to Israel" (Acts 5:31). So repentance is a gift from God! How can I change my heart when I "enjoy" that delicious feeling of revenge that wells up when I have slipped in that last biting word? It is a bitter joy, to be sure, but in our strangely human way, we do enjoy our bitterness, our hatred, and our envy. All we can do is ask the Lord to give us repentance, to take away the bitter joy in our sinning, to make our hearts new in Him.

So now I can open my heart to the Lord even when it is deeply soiled especially when it is soiled for He is the only source of my help. My prayers may not be quite so polite now, but I serve Him with a vigor and a joy that was unknown before. I can tell it like it is, for I serve a great God who has given me the privilege of complaining to Him when I feel He has forsaken me. I cherish that privilege and I know it is mine. He has even published a prayer to prove it.

Questioning God

There is another aspect of the Old Testament experience that has greatly enriched my prayer life, and that is the great freedom that God's friends exercise in His presence when they don't understand His justice or if they fear that He might be doing something damaging to His own reputation. Now there are pas sages in Scripture that encourage caution in our conversations with the Lord, and these have their place (cf. Mal. 3:13-15; Rom. 9:20). There is a skepticism that is damaging and destructive and ought to be avoided at all costs. But there is also a healthy doubt that arises from honest questioning, from a sincere desire to know the truth and to see God's kingdom established. It is this latter brand of questioning that is actually quite easily aroused in God's true friends.

One of the most striking examples of such a "skeptical" friend of God is Job. In ordinary conversation we speak of the patience of Job, but the only place in the book of Job where the patience appears is in the first two chapters. Be ginning with chapter 3, Job opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth (Job 3:1). And that is only the beginning. During the course of his conversations with his friends, Job says some startling things about his friends and some shocking things about God. For example, when speaking of God he ex claims: "It is all one; therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent" (Job 9:22, 23). In fact, I find it fascinating to note how Job is used and quoted in the Christian community, for often the "noble" sayings cited from the book of Job actually come from the mouths of Job's friends, and they had to repent in the end (cf. Job 42: 1-9). If, however, we were to read in the church many of the things that Job said in his distress, the assembled worshipers would be horrified. But in spite of all Job's shocking utterances, when the dust had settled, God declared that Job was the one who had spoken the truth; the friends had uttered lies (Job 42:7). That in itself is a striking illustration of how the larger framework of one's thoughts and motives is much more important than the specific words and sentences. Taken at the level of individual words and sentences, it was Job who blasphemed and the friends who praised. But in terms of the larger picture, Job's apparent blasphemy was transformed into truth, while the praises of the friends called for repentance and restitution. When the heart belongs to God, such a skepticism can be a powerful weapon in the service of the Lord.

Abraham and Moses argue

Two other stories, this time from the Pentateuch, are among my favorites for illustrating the openness that God's friends have toward Him. The first story is Abraham's conversation with God over the fate of Sodom. I would highly recommend that you read the whole narrative, but especially Genesis 18:22-33. There we see Abraham's initial reaction when he learned from Yahweh that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was imminent. He was horrified: "Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (verse 23). "Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (verse 25).

Now there was a time when I thought that anyone who would talk like that to God deserved a slap in the face or some thing worse. But no. The Lord kept a straight face and was actually willing to bargain with Abraham. He did not strike Abraham dead for questioning Him. You see, Abraham was a friend of God and God's friends can afford to talk frankly with the Lord of the universe. It is interesting to observe, however, the telltale signs that Abraham's conscience was gently pricking him throughout this bar gaining session with the Lord (verses 27, 30, 31, 32). Yet that respectful side of his conscience did not deter him from thrusting forward the questions that the skeptical side of his conscience impelled him to ask. And of course, Abraham's primary concern was for the reputation of the great Judge of all the earth. Abraham was a subject of that great Judge and he was intent that the reputation of his Judge remain absolutely untarnished. What bravery! What loyalty! What friendship!

A similar experience is reflected in Moses' relationship with God. Exodus 32 describes the conversation between Moses and Yahweh after Israel's great apostasy at Sinai. The Lord must have been testing Moses to see if his heart was in the right place when He said, "Now there fore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation" (verse 10).

Any normal human being would have jumped at the chance to become the founder of a great nation, and especially if one had gone through the agony that Moses had experienced with Israel. But Moses was no normal human. He was another one of God's friends and his re action was immediate: "Why Lord? What will the Egyptians say? And re member the promises You made to Abra ham, Isaac, and Israel. You even swore to them by Yourself. Repent of this evil and turn from Your fierce wrath" (see verses 11-14). "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people" (verse 14). When the right people are skeptical with God at the right time, they can even save whole nations. At least that is what happened when Moses opened his heart to the Lord.

Some basic principles In conclusion, let us summarize some basic principles that can be of help in dealing with the problems noted at the beginning of,the chapter, first, the violence and crudities in the Psalms, and second, the difficulty of being really open with a holy God. As I have suggested, the two problems belong together, for when we realize that the psalmists could ad dress God with absolute honesty, we can take heart and do likewise. But we must remember that the violent language in the Psalms is not a reflection of the ideal experience; it is not a reflection of God Himself, but rather of His erring children who were struggling with life-and-death issues in a twisted world. Under the impulse of His Spirit, they cried to Him, baring their souls in a way that often makes us uncomfortable, but their faces were toward God and He listened, even to their uncultured language. From that we can take courage, for whether our souls are bitter, angry, or depressed, when we come to Him, we know that He will listen.

And that, of course, is the answer to the second problem, the problem of our polite, arms-length conversations with God. Surprisingly, now that I know that the Lord will listen to strong, even seemingly disrespectful language, that very knowledge often takes the edge off my rebellion. Simply knowing that He can handle my seething emotions is often just the tonic that I need to restore my soul to health.

This chapter has described something that is very near to the heart of my Christian experience. Yet even as I bring this chapter and this book to a close, I am aware of the great paradox in the divine-human relationship. As I now reflect on the grandeur and the nearness of my God, His holiness and His friendliness, I feel myself torn between two conflicting emotions. I am drawn by the force of His love, but am forced to my knees by the awareness of an awesome gulf between a God like that and a man like this. It is the tension between a Jacob who desperately clings to his Master: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me," and a Peter, who falls on his face crying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man."

But the Lord does not depart from people who pray such a prayer. That is news worth sharing.

*Bible texts quoted in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

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Alden Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington.

November 1990

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