Jesus’ Use of the Psalms

There is every evidence to believe that Jesus prayed the psalms as prayers. When Jesus was particularly frustrated by the attacks of some of the religious leaders, he may well have prayed: “For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction, their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you” (Ps 5:9-10). When we think of Jesus’ praying this psalm, we are faced with three choices. Our first choice is to believe that Jesus censored the psalms and prayed only those verses that were appropriate to his forgiving nature. Therefore, as disciples of Christ, we are invited to join him in the censorship of certain psalms as inappropriate. The problem with this solution is that sometimes the harsh words of the Psalms do express some of our most base feelings. If Jesus censored these words, does this suggest that he did not have negative feelings and therefore did not share in the fullness of humanity? Or does it suggest that he had these feelings, but, unlike the psalmist, he was unwilling to lift them up to God in prayer. Neither suggestion fits with the gospel’s picture of Jesus who clearly got very angry and was not above denouncing the religious leaders of his time.

Our second choice is to believe that Jesus used these denunciatory prayers during his lifetime but later, from the perspective of the cross, offered a new viewpoint. The one who prayed “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) revealed to us that such harsh denunciations were inappropriate in light of God’s forgiving love. This places the responsibility upon each of us to bring to worship a forgiving spirit that we often do not feel. It also suggests that we are to do what Jesus could not do before the cross.

Our third choice is to believe that Jesus, indeed, experienced the fullness of humanity, including some very negative feelings. It assumes that Jesus recognized not only the reality of opposition forces, but also had negative feelings toward them. Mark suggested this real possibility when he described Jesus’ response in one incident by saying, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5a). With these strong feelings, is it not possible that Jesus prayed words such as those in Psalm 5 quoted above? Is it not likely that Jesus included in his prayers the negative feelings he had toward those whom he perceived as being in opposition to God? By allowing prayer to bring his negative feelings about those who threatened the reign of God into the realm of God, was not Jesus trusting that God could reign over those feelings? Would he not have lifted up natural human feelings to the only one who was able to receive the prayers and transform them into forgiving possibilities? Only from this perspective is it clear that where God rules, the enemy is not finally a threat. It is only from this viewpoint that one is able to offer forgiveness.

For ordinary Christians who experience opposition and negative feelings, we are invited to bring the full breadth of these experiences into the realm of God. In doing so, we recognize that vengeance belongs to God (Ps 94:1), which sets us free from the necessity of seeking human vengeance. When we bring our negative experiences to God, we celebrate the sovereignty of God over all that threatens us, recognizing that God rules over all that would diminish us. Further, we recognize that only from the perspective of God’s rule being exercised, as it was in Christ, can these situations be open to creative new possibilities.

Our reluctance to pray these psalms before God as Christians may seem to be a superior stance to that of our Jewish ancestors. The danger, however, would be that it reflects a belief that God cannot handle the type of vengeful thoughts that are natural to our being. The question is not whether we should forgive our enemies. The question is whether forgiveness is possible outside of the sovereignty of God. Unless we trust that God is master of even those events that result from actions of our enemies, we can only see those actions as evil threats to our being. Jesus was able to pray for the forgiveness of those who had crucified him because he trusted that God could take those actions and transform them into a saving reality. The cross offered by the enemy to defeat the love of Christ became the saving reality for the world.

This originally appeared in Experiencing the Psalms by Stephen P. McCutchan.

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