Psalm 139 must be among the most beautiful passages in the Bible – for its first 18 verses, then it all seems to go horribly wrong, at least as something I can pray.
The psalmist meditates on the majesty of God entwined with his love for the psalmist as a unique individual. It’s a psalm I often read aloud as I lead mourners to a grave during a funeral; not just for verse 8 (where ‘Sheol’ is translated as ‘the grave’ in the service) but for its overall picture of the infinite reach and intense depth of the loving presence of God. It feels in some ways like the fruit of meditation on Psalm 8, with its wonder that the God who placed the stars should care for human beings. But here it’s made personal. Wonder leads to confidence, in a way that repays many readings.
When the psalm’s included in the funeral service, it stops at verse 18. Understandably. In a way which we’ve seen in a few psalms, wonderful praise turns abruptly to asking God to kill the wicked. I have a feeling that the psalmist has some particular ‘wicked’ in mind, though they’re not named. If it wasn’t for the fact that this pattern keeps coming up in the psalms, I’d like to think that it was a different author at this point, but there’s nothing other than my preference to indicate that.
A similar thing happens with psalm 136. The band Boney M used it as the text for a hit song in the 1970s, but left out the bit about ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash the against the rock!’ The first part is a beautiful lament of God’s people in exile, but again it ends with a terrible plea for vengeance.
I suspect that I might find it easier to pray these words if I lived in Aleppo. They remind us that many of the psalms are the poems of refugees, exiles who have lost most of what they valued. I can take from them those words that I can use in prayer and praise, but I can’t forget the pain which gave depth to the expressions of confident faith as much as to the depths of bitter anger.
And the presence of these words in the Bible reminds me that the psalms aren’t given to us as perfect prayers to be used in any and all circumstances as if they have no context. They, like the Law, are part of the story of God’s people. They give us confidence to be open and honest with God in our own prayers. Sometimes they also give us words and thoughts that uplift us or on which we can draw.
Perhaps they also remind us of one other thing – that we should pray for those whose suffering is such that they can pray all these words and mean them.