Psalm 137 starts out “By the willows there, we laid down our harps and wept when we remembered Zion.” But then it ends with “Happy shall they be who take your little one and dash them against the rock!”
Psalm 139 holds those familiar words, “O God you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…” It goes on with this beautiful assuring language for 18 verses. But then verses 19 and following intrude and disturb our complacency: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you?...I hate them with perfect hatred.”
These are not the praise songs that we often think of when we think of the Psalms.
Some have suggested that we sing more Psalms in the coming fall. But if we do this, we had better remember that Psalms are not always pious feel good scriptures. They are often angry and perhaps as such they are some of the most honest scriptures in the Bible.
Many of the Psalms are raw and confusing, just like we are at times. Two thirds of the Psalms are laments. They are places where people cry to God, rail at God, saying things that are not very pretty. We’re not pretty people when we grieve, yet that is where many of us are. We grieve over the loss of loved ones. We think of loves lost, of family members sick, of broken relationships, of harsh words said and heard, of violence perpetrated and repentance rebuffed. And yet in our orderly Protestant services, we don’t find places to lament. Are we too busy? Too focused on the positive? Denial ain’t only a river in Egypt, you know.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers have portion of their Shabbat services where they sing or read a kaddish, a lament, a prayer for the dead and grieving. The Psalms remind us that in our grief, wailing to and railing at God is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it’s encouraged. And only after that, can praise come. Only after that might we find our voice to sing amongst the peoples.
Think about what you might want to complain to God about. How might you weep and gnash your teeth? What violent thoughts exist below the surface of your pious facade that we dare not speak aloud? God will hear it all.
Psalm 57 is attributed to David as he fled and hid in the cave from King Saul. Saul was jealous of David’s fame and his good favor among the people. So what does the insecure leader do? Saul trumps up charges on David. He hires his own special prosecutor, robs the treasury and then tries to impeach poor David. This was before David raped Bathsheba and rebuffed his daughter Tamar. He eventually got caught in the cycle of domination, lust and greed. But here, David hides in a cave and prays to God. Like many of us, David is trying to sing the sacred songs in a strange land.
It begins innocently enough, “Be merciful to me of God…In the shadow of your wings I take refuge until the storms of destruction pass.” Another Psalm, number 91 has God saying, “I will raise you up on the wings of eagles.”
Then comes the anguish: “I lie in the midst of lions that greedily devour children; their teeth are spears and arrows their tongues sharp swords.” Many of us have been on the receiving end of spears and arrows that originate from another’s mouth. They can hurt worse than a fist because it comes form the mind of another. That’s why I hate the endless campaign season. It seems that all teeth become spears and arrows and all tongues sharp swords. As if that is the only way to win an election.
David weeps here in the cave. In his own cave, in his closet he weeps and mourns. He articulates the wrong done to him. He pours out his soul to the only one guaranteed to listen. I imagine he might also confess his own sins—even thought that’s not listed in the Psalm, I really hope it’s there. Because just getting angry doesn’t transform you. Recognizing God’s direction for your life is what transforms you.
Psalm 57 gives us the dire warning, “watch your step.” It doesn’t mean walk in the straight and narrow. It doesn’t mean don’t stray from the path. It means there are enemies encamping around you. “They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path.” It’s awful. You know how it is. We feel that no matter how we try, we will get snared by someone else. There is a force of evil out there that conspires against us. No matter what we do, there is some trap that we fall into. It seems like we get a little ahead financially and then someone gets sick. Out the window goes our savings. We have finally paid off the credit card and then the car breaks down. We have finally gotten done with the latest round of chemotherapy and we break our toe. It feels like there is a demon following us around setting traps for us. When faced with such a series of traps, it’s tempting to just give up. What’s the use? Why even try? Let’s just turn our head toward the wall, or better yet, let’s just buy more channels and click our way into oblivion. This old church building can feel like that sometimes, too. We try real hard to fix it all up and then something else goes wrong.
And we get all sorts of support for just giving up. It’s what the forces of evil are counting on. Whatever demon conspires against you, they are counting on your giving up. Stay in the cave, O David. Resistance is futile. You believe the first part of the Psalm. The enemies have set a trap for me. They are snaring my feet. They have dug a pit for my path. It’s no use, they are right on my toes. And then, we look back to see just how close they are and they are gone. Was it a mirage? But we go back and find that they have fallen into their own pit. Evil is like that. It is so insidious that it can swallow you whole. If we spend out time in vengeance, setting traps for our enemies, eventually we are consumed by that and our best selves get used up. Imagine if we simply watched our steps and used our best energies to help another rather than ensnare an enemy.
Watch your step. Don’t get caught in another’s trap. And watch out for the traps of our own making. What are your traps?
This scripture is here to help us to realize that death and hardship and snares and slings and arrows do not have the final word. God is guiding us out of the pit onto the other side.
The lamentation psalms don’t end with the lamentation. They end with praise. But the praise takes on a new meaning after a lamentation has been laid bare. It’s no longer just feel-good praise songs, it’s praise on the other end of the cave. It’s praise from the mountaintop after 40 years of toil in the desert and seeing the Promised Land off in the distance.
David says from the cave, “My heart is steadfast O God. I will sing and make melody. Awake my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake at the dawn. I will give thanks to you and I will sing amongst the peoples.” David says these words to convince himself, so that despair doesn’t have the last word. It’s not always such a quick fix. We don’t know how long it took to get from the lament to the praise, but it got there eventually. And the praise took on new meaning. It was deeper, more heartfelt, more passionate, more relevant because it comes on the way out of the cave.
The song that is finally sung from out of the cave is not a song of hard-heartedness. It’s not a cover for the grief. It’s the prayer of one who can honestly pray because he or she has let the grief go. It’s a song of one who has embraced the power of God.
May we enter this day, this season, this beautiful summer remembering that God knows our deepest hurts, our most profound longings and our basest fears. God also knows where the traps are set. And God tells us to watch our steps lest we get sucked down to the pit of despair. There is a ladder out of every pit, an exit to every cave. The church is where we model that and live into it. So, enter this summer season with renewed fervor and hope. Enjoy the beautiful weather. Sing God’s praises amongst the people. But also watch your step. Protect yourself from the sharp piercing words. Prayerfully reconnect with your highest purpose. For in that journey we find new life.
And we can sing along with the Psalmist: “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you O God among the peoples; For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.” (Psalm 57:7-11/Psalm 108:1-5) Sing praises among the people. Sing, and watch your step.