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You are driving along, minding your own business, and suddenly someone speeds up and cuts you off simply to get one measly car-length ahead when the two lanes shut down to one. Maybe you are riding your bicycle, and someone passes you in a diesel pickup truck and coal-rolls you, blasting you in the face with black smoke. Your immediate response, and mine, is likely not, “have a nice day.”
It is far more intense. Your response may involve hand signals and shouting.
Some people feel guilty or embarrassed by responding like this to another’s miserable behavior. We’re supposed to be nice. It is, however, human nature to respond. We knee-jerk a response depending on how deeply we feel our ego has been bruised. It is hard to turn the other cheek when the cheek that got hit is smarting.
Welcome to humanity.
Once we are willing to confront our behavior and see it as a natural response to a bad situation, we’re ready for part of the biblical tradition that otherwise seems offensive and puzzling. I’m talking about the imprecatory psalms.
Normally we think of Psalms from verses like “The Lord is my shepherd,” or “I will look unto the hills whence cometh my help” or “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”
We may even identify with verses like “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have led a blameless life.” A little chutzpah there!
There is another side to the Psalms.
There are pivots to this side, like, “I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me” or “Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.”
When you turn to that other side, you hear words like these: “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead, for evil finds lodging among them.” Most chillingly: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
These are the imprecatory psalms, friends, that one prays against one’s enemies. The imprecatory psalms call down destruction on our perceived enemies, or at least curse them. Twenty of these psalms are threaded throughout the book. They are not pleasant.
The imprecatory psalms, however, are not a justification of our desire for revenge. These psalms call for genuine justice when wronged.
We instinctively think, Why are there no police around when that guy passed me and illegally coal-rolled me! In other words, we experience the same emotions and the same desire the Psalmist did when wronged.
It is not easy to perceive the imprecatory psalms in a good light. It requires thought to see them other than vindictive responses to poor treatment, like my response to the far lesser event of being cut off on the highway. But it is possible.
It’s easy to lash out indiscriminately, often with hurtful words that cannot be taken back. Your ego has been damaged, however, not your soul. Unless you let it be, of course, but that’s your decision. In the Psalms, the writers are not seeking personal vengeance. They’re looking for justice. Let us look for justice in our world, pray for it, and leave the ultimate judgment to God.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is priest emeritus of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Church.
Contact him as email@example.com.