I remember a conversation I had many years ago with a fellow worker regarding how to pray for some people who had been scheming against our company. I don’t recall the specific details of the situation but I know we were in a bit of a bind and some people were not playing nice. In fact, if I remember correctly, they were out and out cheating and doing illegal things.
Full of youthful vigor and ignorance, I suggested we pray judgment upon them because of course, that is what the Psalmist did quite frequently. An older member of the company who was in the meeting slowly turned his head and said something like “I’m not sure that’s a proper reading of the Psalms.” I didn’t push the issue with the group but internally I dismissed him as being soft and choose to pray judgment upon my enemies.
To be honest, I don’t remember how it turned out.
That brief interaction has stayed with me for nearly 30 years now as I frequently wonder about the proper way to read the Psalms. For instance, David, in Psalm 28, is crying out to the Lord for mercy (v. 2) but also asking the Lord to mercilessly judge his enemies (vv 3-5). That seems a bit odd to me, maybe even hypocritical. What I mean is, I wonder how David, or anyone who knows the depth of their own sin, can pray judgment upon someone else. It seems a bit harsh to pray for someone’s demise unless you really don’t care about other people. I think I read somewhere we are to treat others as we would have them treat us.
This week I was reading about the destruction God was about to bring upon Moab in Isaiah 15 and 16. In the middle of Isaiah’s description of the coming judgment, he says something that seems odd. He tells the Israelites to “shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them.” (16:3-4) I find it interesting that God would call Israel to shelter the very people whom he is judging. Don’t you?
As I tried to process the passages in Isaiah and Psalm 28, I wrote a short poem:
Even in the midst of judgment, We are called… We are called to help the fugitive and the outcast and the oppressed. We are not called to sit on the sidelines and cheer their destruction. We are not called to turn them out and multiply their infirmities. When God judges them, we are called to be the hand of love.
I don’t honestly know if that is good theology. I’m sure somewhere, in some heavy, leather-bound work of systematic theology there might be a paragraph stating we should not step in to help those God is judging. It might even go so far as to say we ought to actively become involved in God’s judgment. But if there is a book saying that I think it is wrong and should be discarded and used for a more noble purpose, like starting a fire, or something else you might do with very thin paper. Sadly, however, there are people in this world who believe that sort of nonsense. We see them picket funerals, we see them post offensive billboards, and we listen to them during coffee breaks talking of how God is judging so-and-so because of such-and-such and how we are glad they are “finally getting what they deserve.”
But I think we are called to love. I don’t think we are called to judge, at least not those outside of the church. (Judging those inside the church who call themselves believers is a completely different topic. For that see I Cor. 5 and II Cor. 5 and 6…maybe I’ll write on that topic later). But to a dying and lost world, we are called to be the hands of love and the cloak of mercy. We are called to shelter the outcast even if we disagree with who they are and what they have done.
With that, I come back to Psalm 28 and now I think I know how to read this Psalm: it is the cry of David’s heart to God, not theology. It shows us that God accepts real prayers, full of real emotion, coming from our heart. But it also shows us God wants us to know not every prayer of our heart is pure. He wants us, I think, to recognize the very thing we ask for ourselves is the thing we should be asking for others. He wants us to recognize we are not the hand of judgment but we are to be the hands of love.
Looking back to that interaction over 30 years ago, I wish I had listened to the advice of the older member of the company. I don’t think he was being soft, rather, I think he was being loving. I think he knew prayers come from sinful people wanting things for others we don’t want for ourselves. I think he knew we were called to bring peace and mercy to those around us. I think he knew we were called to do that because he knew God had already done it for us.