Psalm 139 is a beautiful text, a well-known Psalm with touching words. I can’t remember the number of times I have seen words of this text used on cards announcing the birth of a child… and yet… there are some verses at the end of the Psalm which can seem odd, or even offend us and which bring a certain number of problems with them.
When thinking of Psalm 139, most of us probably think of those beautiful verses saying “14 I thank you because I am awesomely made, wonderfully; your works are wonders — I know this very well. 15 My bones were not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes could see me as an embryo, but in your book all my days were already written; my days had been shaped before any of them existed.”
Have you ever seen your reflection in a mirror, in moment when you weren’t expecting it? For example in a mirror in a shopping mall, in a window, or maybe on the surface of a body of water? What was your reaction? Were you content, surprised, or even annoyed?
A mirror confronts us with ourselves, and with the image that we have of ourselves. Different from photos, the mirror shows us our flaws – we see ourselves the way we are.
It confronts us: What do I look like? How do others see me? Who am I really, after all?
Some like seeing themselves in a mirror, some rare people admire themselves, and others are rather quite often discontent with what they see. I have to admit that quite often, I count myself to be in the last category – but I am learning to see myself the way I am.
I thank you because I am awesomely made, wonderfully…
Most, if not all of us, know this verse. And we know that what the psalmist says is true – at least within our minds.
But in our hearts and lives, there can be voices and circumstances telling us (or wanting to tell us) the contrary. Thus we can –and should- always re-discover this verse throughout our lives.
I thank you because I am awesomely made, wonderfully.
How many times have we prayed this verse without being truly convinced by what it is saying?
Upon seeing our reflection, we should tell ourselves: This is someone created in the image of God who is looking at me, and who is awesomely and wonderfully made. I don’t need to hide myself, or hide who I am – my inside just as much as my outside. We are wonderfully made, from the first day of our existence on. And not only when we are young – each age has its very own beauty.
The author of the Psalm knows this full well. He lives in a very intimate relationship with God. He knows that, whatever he does, God is with him. This relationship is so close that it could even seem stifling – he cannot escape it. If it was another person than God, I most certainly couldn’t handle someone being with me 24/7 and reading my mind like an open book… but with God, things are different: he is my, our, creator, and he truly knows us, and never leaves us.
Sometimes, we don’t want others to know us perfectly because we are afraid that they might discover something in us they don’t like, or which we are ashamed of ourselves. But God knows already all there is to know about us, and it doesn’t keep him from loving us. God is with us in all situations, every trial – and He protects us, loves us and directs us.
Since God created us, He knows us perfectly, and he understands us perfectly – better than parents could ever know their children, or spouses know each other, or than best friends can comprehend the other. The author of the Psalm knows this. This is why he is able, at the end of the Psalm, to let himself go – those verses that we rather like to omit during public reading and which can cause us some troubles in our own personal reading of the Bible.
“19 God, if only you would kill off the wicked! Men of blood, get away from me! 20 They invoke your name for their crafty schemes; yes, your enemies misuse it. 21 Adonai, how I hate those who hate you! I feel such disgust with those who defy you! 22 I hate them with perfect and unlimited hatred! They have become my enemies too.”
Those are very harsh words, the kind we can sometimes encounter in the book of Psalms – and they are not even the worst ones. Their violence is shocking.
In the biggest part of the Bible, it is God who speaks to us humans: he gives the law and the commandments, he speaks through his prophets.
But with Psalms, things are different, the communication goes the other way: the psalms of the Bible are man’s answer to the covenant God has made with his people, and come to us from the different kinds of life situations with their ups and downs – there are actually more lamentations than jubilations in the book of Psalms.
Thus, we find there the cry of humans to their God, and the whole gamut of human emotions – from joy and love to sadness, anger and hatred.
First, the psalmist evokes his awe when contemplating God’s omnipresence, the creator who made him and who thus knows him since he was a baby in his mother’s womb. He even says that God “knit him together” and thus knows him intimately. He also admits that, even though he sees and recognizes the works of God, being a creature, he cannot fathom the mind and thoughts of God.
And suddenly, a brutal change of voice: the author of the Psalm expresses his anger, hatred and frustration concerning the evildoers that are closing in on him and who seem wanting to harm him (Men of blood, get away from me!). He wants to see them perish and disappear – and even more so as they use, or even abuse, the name of God to justify their evil schemes!
But then, the psalmist submits his thoughts to God: he asks God to examine his heart and thoughts, and to show him if he is on the wrong way. He finishes his prayer by asking God to lead him on the way that leads to eternity.
It is evident that the author of the Psalm is in a difficult situation. Yet he begins his prayer by listing all the wonders of God as well as His goodness. He is grateful for the life that God has given him.
Then, suddenly, brutally, he speaks about what is happening in his life right now – maybe he is menaced or even persecuted.
Wouldn’t it be normal to want it to cease?
God certainly knows why this is happening to him, but he, the author, doesn’t know – God’s thoughts are too lofty for him. But his frustration and his anger are very real – and he expresses all he is feeling about them before God.
But he is also conscious that his hatred could lead him into the wrong direction: he asks God to examine him, and to lead him on the right way.
There are many writings in the book of Psalms that could qualify as “not very correct calls”, and the violence of the words that are used in them can be rather shocking. These words are disconcerting – why are they in the Bible?
If we are honest, there are situations in life in which all we have left is the cry of despair and revolt. There are things that are simply not acceptable. Suffering, death, abuse, injustice, poverty, hunger, violence, war…
The presence of such words in the Bible shows us that anger is not forbidden. It is a natural emotion and even healthy.
The problems come from the way we handle our anger.
Actually, the author does not want to kill the evildoers by himself, but asks God to make them perish – he is conscious that vengeance and reparation belong to God. But, as God knows him inside and outside, he can tell it all, tell everything to God and shout out his feelings.
These images are of a rare violence. Can they be justified?
On a human level, certainly not.
But let’s face it: sometimes we all feel like killing someone (or at least tell them what we think in no vague terms), or at least, we can get very angry and throw a tantrum. If this is not your case, I admire you – because to me, sometimes it happens.
But, we have to remember that what we have here is a cry – problems would arise if one wanted to transform this cry into reality.
This form of violence, shouting his misfortune to God with such harsh words, can “relieve the pressure” and permit the author to place his trust in God – God will take care of the matter. Shouting our misfortune and anger to God can have purifying effects: the believer gets rid of his obsessions and gives them up to God. By shouting out our desire for vengeance and by transferring them to God, the believer is liberated.
The story of Cain and Abel showed us that the first violent act, murder, was born from an absence of communication. But words, even violent ones, help to channel that violence and eventually to overcome it.
We have to remember that in general, the Bible shows us a God who wants the best for each and all. But it is not up to us to turn God into a sort of vigilante opposing all and everybody who opposes him and us.
Already in Vayikra (Leviticus) God tells us “Do not avenge, and do not be resentful towards your brother” (19:18). We can bring anything that boils in us to God.
God can take it. He can hear all that we tell him without being offended.
He can take it all, because he created us and knows us perfectly, and loves us perfectly.
As our lives, Psalm 139 is full of contradictions: awe before the infinite knowledge of God and violence lurking at the bottom of the human heart; God accepts these contradictions and ambivalences.
Even in our contradictions, God – against all odds- is present with us, and we can find the path to healing, reconciliation and peace. He opened the path towards Life, a path of peace that God wants for us.
With our difficulties, and being witnesses to the horrors happening in this world, it is normal to feel angry. What is important is what wedo.
Expressing our anger and our dismay before God disarms us and takes away some of the violence in us; it allows us to release pressure and to follow the the path of non-violence and, if possible, reconciliation -both with situations, people, or with ourselves. This path will lead us ultimately to overcome our anger and our confusion, and will enable us to recognize ourselves and the other as marvelous creatures created in the image of God, to forgive as God has forgiven us, and to love without distinction, like Him.
Just like the Psalmist, we want to be saved from those who are responsible for the hardships in our lives, and from those things that make our lives harder – be it people, diseases or difficult situations.
We would like that God comes immediately as a triumphant king, ending all that hurts and goes wrong in the world, or for us. But these expectations are often not met, or at least not right away.
During this sometimes difficult time of waiting, we can tell God everything and express ourselves freely. We can be sure: even if He does not answer immediately, and in the way we would have expected or wanted, he hears us. We can be assured that God can take all that we tell Him, pouring our hearts out to Him.