In my second address, I began by mentioning the psalmists oppressed by wickedness and the utter wrongness of things who cry, “How long, O Lord?”. Here is one of those psalms that has turned up in our morning cycle. So let’s not tiptoe round the maelstrom but plunge into its centre in the hope of finding some still small voice amid the roar of wind and waves.
Primo Levi’s powerful memoir of Auschwitz, If This is a Man, offers an unflinching testimony to the minute particulars of cruelty and suffering. In one place, he writes about the wooden bowls each prisoner had. They were precious because without your bowl, you would not be able to eat, and once lost, it could be extremely hard to procure another. So prisoners would etch their name or camp number on the bottom of their bowl. But Levi came across a Frenchman who did not do this but etched instead the words Ne pas chercher à comprendre. For Auschwitz is a place beyond all understanding, a place that makes no-sense, where there is no answer to the question “why?” This is the world our psalm inhabits.
You’ll remember that in the week of The Queen’s Speech, a “day of rage” was organised in London in support of the Grenfell Tower victims and the social conditions that were exposed by that terrible fire. There was a lot of criticism about the demonstration, and a number of Christians posted messages on social media arguing that it was a day of prayer that was needed, not a day of rage. I can see both sides of this debate. But when I read psalms like 79, so full of anger in the aftermath of a fearful catastrophe, I find I have more sympathy with the protesters. Whatever else this psalm and others like it have to say, they seem to me to give us permission to rage. Not to protest at the injustice of it all seems to me to be a failure to feel with and for its victims who are our own flesh and blood.
But this is not a licence to rage blindly, or to rage hatefully at other people. The thing is, to rage in the presence of God. And that is the startling insight of these angry psalms, as it is of the Book of Job which we have been reading at the Church of England morning office in recent weeks. This is not sightless rage, but a far-seeing rage that sees that there is a God to be wrestled with and reckoned with, to whom all the great questions of life and death, suffering and distress need to be addressed. Why this? Why us? Why now? Why did you allow it? Where were you? How long, O Lord before you come to help us?
Like Psalm 106 which we looked at yesterday, disaster has struck Judah. They, the destroying nations, have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. This points again to the Babylonian invasion of the sixth century. By this time, the people are possibly in exile, or maybe still picking over the ruins of their holy and beautiful house in a post-traumatic state of shock, bewilderment and paralysis that is common after some awful catastrophe has befallen. And the opening verses leave us in no doubt about the terror they have endured. Human bodies lie unburied because there is no-one left to care for them; they are now carrion for wild animals and birds of prey. Blood has flowed in rivers around Jerusalem. The nations looking on, the pitiless goyyim as the psalm calls them, have no words of comfort, only derision and mockery. It is one of those unforgettable human landscapes depicted in the scriptures, and one of the most desolate and forlorn. Who would not weep in the face of such anguish?
The heart of this lament is the passionate prayer introduced by the words we began with, How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? It’s hardly a comfortable psalm to recite when so much of it is dominated by the sense of divine judgment. But there is a logic here, and the way the argument works is important. It begins by recognising that the Lord’s anger with his people is justified. There is a reason for all the suffering they have endured: do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors…deliver us and forgive our sins. So we are back in the same experience of yesterday with Psalm 106 and how we tell the story of our own failure and sin. Here, it is the people who are doing this collectively. In the other psalm we recited this morning, Psalm 51, it is the individual penitent. Both these are different from the many laments where the sufferer does not understand why he or she is undergoing this punishment. Here, the people do not question God’s justice. They accept the premise that turning away from the will of a righteous God, violating his torah and transgressing his commandments is wilfully to break his covenant. And that in turn is to bring down on Israel the sanctions of a broken contract, the curses that are the other side of the blessings set before the people when the covenant was enacted in cloud and fire at the mountain of Horeb that you find in the Book Deuteronomy
The psalmist sees the nations as God’s unwitting agents in punishing Israel. Yet the prayer is that God will deliver Israel from the goyyim who have been the instruments of his justice. There seems to be the assumption that in the wholesale havoc they have wreaked, they have overreached themselves. So the prayer asks that God will turn his anger away from Israel and towards the goyyim. Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. And all this because poor Jacob is left friendless without ally or champion – whether among the surrounding nations or in almighty God himself.
It’s important not to misunderstand outbursts of anger like these which are very common in the psalms. It is not (or not primarily) that Israel wants vengeance for its own sake. Rather, it is the concern that God should be God, should vindicate himself before the world, publicly demonstrate that he cares about protecting his reputation, is moral as well as mighty. You could say that what exercises the psalmist is putting right and stabilising the moral order of the universe. It is unjust that the nations have punished Israel beyond what they deserved. And it is unjust that they continue to mock the people and blaspheme their God. Why should the nations say, “Where is their (that is, Israel’s) God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes.
The final section encapsulates these themes and adds an afterword. The psalmist returns to the plight of Judah’s victims and prays let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die. But his fury is so close to the surface that it bursts out one last time. Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbours the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord! A sevenfold punishment is exceptionally severe. But the psalm doesn’t end on that vengeful note. Instead, it looks forward to deliverance. There is a “certainty of hearing” as there is in so many laments, the confidence that God will act for his beleaguered nation and in due time they will have cause to be thankful. Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise. So the first forever question is answered by a forever affirmation. Will you be angry forever? … We will give you thanks forever. It is in the Lord’s hands. Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
I said this was not a comfortable psalm. I think it calls for spiritual self-awareness if we are going to pray it with integrity. I don't so much mean that we are all affected the church’s culture of niceness where negative feelings are not allowed. I am more thinking of the risk we face that we could be eaten up by this rage, so full of righteous (or unrighteousness) anger that we forget that we are taught to love not only our neighbour but our enemy as well. I want to come back later to how we read this psalm on Friday, the day of the Cross.
Here is what I find myself doing with psalms like these. First, I want to affirm the importance of truth-telling when it comes to calamity and devastation. What is refreshing in the psalm laments is the total absence of pretence. They are written out of the searing experience of disaster and agony, and this is what the psalmist intends to lay before God. This puts a question mark by our propensity always to find a formal, courteous register that we regard as fit to be used in the presence of God. I am all for getting the words of public worship right! But there are times when carefully honed rhythms and cadences do not quite do justice to the hardness and roughness of human experience. The laments tell us: we do not need to be afraid to come as we are into the divine presence. God asks us and wants us to be truthful about our condition, and if that means crying out in unadorned protest at the ordeals that others or we are suffering, then that is how we must pray. Indeed, it would be wrong to bend the ear of the divine on any other terms. And if we doubt the legitimacy of praying out of godforsakenness and despair, we have only to think of the agonised last words of Jesus on the cross in St Matthew and St Mark. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabhachthani? “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Next, I want to ask us to take seriously the kind of God to whom this lament is addressed. When the text talks about his being angry forever, we tend to think of the affect, an outburst of emotion as likely as not wild and uncontrolled. I believe this is to misunderstand the psalm. In the Hebrew Bible, anger at its best, like love, is an act of the will. It's a decision. In the concrete imagery of the Old Testament, love is to turn your face towards someone else, while anger is to turn your face away. Which is to say that when we get behind our emotions, anger and love are two sides of the same coin, which is about honouring the integrity of a personal relationship. It’s in the nature of a holy God to love truth, integrity and justice, and to abhor what is false, wicked and wrong. So the psalm appeals to God’s character as a way of reckoning with the disaster that has happened. If God is responsible for events (as he must ultimately be), then it is only by laying over them the template of God’s character as we have learned to know him that we can hope to respond adequately, theologically and spiritually. So at its best, our human rage at the injustices that we see all around us is a way of aligning ourselves with the God who is angry about them too. I would not want to pray to a God who was not angry about the injustice and cruelty in the world, angry at how the poor and the voiceless and the meek and those in pain suffer, so often at the hands of both the tyrannical and the neglectful.
And this brings me to a third reflection, that all our prayer and all our theology must be rooted in the experience of human beings. What has prompted this psalm is the destruction of a land and the suffering of its people. So it starts out with the victims and their plight. This is a feature of all the laments. Psalm 79 is specific about the pain being endured by a people who are crying out to be delivered. The first four verses are a vivid description of an ordeal that speaks for itself. Only after the psalmist has entered into that dreadful experience can he develop a way of praying in the light of it. I think there is an insight here of profound importance for our prayer, our proclamation and our mission. For if, as I said yesterday, religion has nothing to say about suffering, then it has nothing to say. We must be for the suffering people, as Albert Schweitzer said. And whatever we believe we are called to say in the aftermath of some terrible tragedy (and we shall of course choose our words with the greatest of care), the first message to convey is that we are trying to understand, to think ourselves into other people’s ordeals, to give ourselves in compassion, empathy and love. And if this is the way in which Christianity teaches us to serve, it is also the way it teaches us how to think, theologise and pray.
My fourth thought is about the importance of keeping hope alive. That might not strike you as the message of the psalm. But I think it lies at its very core. For one thing, why pray to God at all if the psalmist didn’t believe that he or she would be heard? Or that God was capable of making a difference? Or that he cared? Prayer is the evidence that hope exists even when it looks as though all hope is lost. And the psalm’s conclusion leaves us in no doubt that this lament springs not only out of bitterness and anger, but also out of hope. There is this “certainty of hearing” that I have mentioned before. We your people, the flock of your pasture, will give you thanks forever. That phrase your people holds the clue. It’s an allusion to the covenant promise, “I will be your God and you shall be my people”. So the psalm ends by reminding God of his undertakings to the people he loves. It's a vital clue about the relationship between God and his people that makes this passionate prayer possible at all. We could easily miss the promise and hope enfolded in it. For us Christians, it makes us look beyond the immediate historical context of the psalm to the relationship of mercy and love God wants to have with all humanity. It was for this that he sent his Son as the everlasting sign of his face turned towards us, and which is symbolised in the gospel when Jesus is named Immanuel, God is with us.
My final reflection is perhaps the most important of all. On this Friday as on every Friday, we commemorate the cross. So we must always read texts of suffering in the light of the Passion. For it is at Golgotha that human pain meets God’s pain, and the suffering of humanity is interpreted and given meaning by a crucified God himself.
As we gaze on the cross with our hearts full because we love Jesus, we can perhaps share the anguish of this psalm. I mean that as we look on him as the innocent victim of human cruelty, it would be natural to rage against those who hate him so, who mock him and spit on him, who crown him with thorns and pierce his precious side. Some of the art and music of the crucifixion captures this sense of outrage, for instance the choruses in the Bach Passions that protest against what is being done to the divine Victim. But of course that sits side by side with another insight of Holy Week, that it is we ourselves who are doing this to Jesus. It is we who need to be reconciled, we for whom Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
So before I take this psalm on my lips to express my anger, or God’s anger, towards others, I need to recite it against myself, so to speak, imagining myself as the oppressor of God’s people and therefore the oppressor of God. For I know, if I'm honest, that I have it in me to be the one who clamours “crucify him!” I wish I didn't. So I need to face the violence within myself that is capable of cruelty and harm, even if I don't act it out. And when I view the psalm from that turned-round perspective, it leads me straight to the cross and to the Reproaches of Good Friday, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”
I'm saying that while it may seem a long journey from the rage of our psalm to the forgiveness and healing of the Cross, it isn't really. When the psalmist draws on the image of the shepherd tending his flock, we know we are not far from Golgotha, the place where that same shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In that act of redeeming love, all hatred, all wrath, all bitterness, all despair is gathered up and transformed. The cross makes all the difference because it is where, as I said earlier in the week, we see what glory means: self-emptying, love poured out. It turns lament into thanksgiving, defeat into victory, sorrow into joy, desperation into hope. The psalmist can glimpse a dawn because he knows that even as he passes through the valley of the shadow of death, he needs fear no evil “for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me”. The possibility of living confidently out of hope while surrounded by terror and devastation is all that the psalmist needs to travel on. It is all we need as well. We can once again light candles in dark places and make the desert blossom. It may sound heroic in bleak circumstances. But experience tells us not to lose heart. It may feel like hoping against hope. But because of the cross, we know that our hope is not in vain.
For meditation today, we might want to think about those on whose behalf we are angry, people treated unjustly, the victims of cruelty, those who are helpless in circumstances that overwhelm them. We could ask ourselves how we express our anger, how we turn it into prayer and good action that could make a difference to others. And on this Friday, we shall want to come back to the cross and give thanks for the redemption of the world and for our own forgiveness, and where we pray for the reconciliation of all people and all things in the Christ who loves us to the end.