Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times
the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.
Psalm 79:13 (NIV)
It’s Christmas season! Yesterday, Wendy and I had the blessing of hugging our children and our grandson for the first time since last December. Milo got to put the ornaments that celebrate each of the four Christmases he’s been with us on the tree. Around the base of the tree is my father’s Lionel train set, and Milo became the fourth generation to experience the joy that train chugging around the tracks.
As I experience Christmas anew this year through the eyes of a three-year-old, I’m reminded of my own childhood. Each year I would get out the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog and make my bucket list of all the toys that I wanted. It was usually a big list and included a host of big-ticket items my parents could never afford and probably wouldn’t buy for me even if they could because there’s know way that the giant chemistry set was going to accomplish anything but make a mess, require a lot of parental assistance, and probably blow up the house. I couldn’t manage such mature cognitive reasoning in my little brain. All I knew was it was really cool, it looked really fun, and all my friends at school would be really jealous.
Along this life journey, I’ve come to understand that my finite and circumstantial emotions and desires are often incongruent with the larger picture realities of both reason and Spirit.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 79, is an angry blues rant that was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. It is a raw description of the scene of devastation after the Babylonians destroyed the city and razed Solomon’s Temple to the ground in 586 B.C. Blood and death are everywhere. Vultures and wild dogs are feasting on dead bodies because there aren’t enough people alive and well to bury the bodies. The strong, educated, and young have been taken as prisoners to Babylon. The ruins of God’s Temple have been desecrated with profane images and graffiti. The songwriter pours out heartbreak, shock, sorrow, rage, and desperate pleas for God to rise up and unleash holy vengeance in what the ancients described as “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.”
As I read the songwriters rant this morning, there are three things that give me layers of added perspective:
First, when God first called Abraham (the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes and nations), He made it clear that the intent of making a nation of Abraham’s descendants was so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them, not destroyed.
Second, God had spoken to the Hebrews through the prophet Jeremiah warning them that the natural consequences of their sin and unfaithfulness would be Babylonian captivity through the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God referred through Jeremiah as “my servant.” It appears that the songwriter may have missed that.
Third, I couldn’t help but read the songwriter’s plea for God to pay back their enemies “seven times” the contempt that their enemies had shown them, and think of the time Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive an enemy who wronged him “seven times.” Peter was trying to show Jesus that he was beginning to understand Jesus’ teaching. To the Hebrews, the number seven spiritually represented “completeness.” When the songwriter asked for “seven times” the vengeance it was a spiritual notion of “eye-for-an-eye” justice would be complete. Peter’s question assumed that forgiving an enemy seven times would be spiritually “complete” forgiveness. Jesus responds to Peter that a more correct equation for forgiveness in the economy of God’s Kingdom would be “seventy-times-seven.”
I come back to the songwriter of Psalm 79 with these three things in mind. The first time I read it, like most 21st century readers, I was taken back by the blood, gore, raw anger, and cries for holy vengeance. Now I see the song with a different perspective. I see a songwriter who is devastated and confused. I hear the crying out of a soul who has witnessed unspeakable things, and whose emotions can’t reasonably see any kind of larger perspective in the moment.
This morning I am reminded of what I discussed in my Wayfarer Weekend podcast, Time (Part 1). Humanity at the time of the ancient Hebrews was still very much in the early childhood stage of development. The songwriter is expressing his thoughts, emotions, and desires like a child desperately asking Santa for a real dinosaur for Christmas. Not just any dinosaur, a real T-Rex to put in the backyard.
Today’s psalm is another example of God honoring the need that we have as human beings of expressing our hearts and emotions in the moment, as we have them, no matter where we find ourselves in our spiritual development. As my spiritual journey has progressed, I’ve gotten better at processing my emotions and having very different conversations with God about circumstances than I did when I was a teenager, a young adult, a young husband, and a young father. It doesn’t invalidate the feelings and conversations I had back then. They were necessary for me to grow, learn, and mature in spirit.
In the quiet this morning, I’m identifying with the songwriter of Psalm 79, not affirming blood vengeance and “eye-for-an-eye-justice,” but affirming that it was where the songwriter was in that moment, just like I have had some rants and prayers along the journey that I’m kind of embarrassed think about now. This is a journey. I’m not who I was, And, I’m not yet who I will ultimately become in eternity. I’m just a wayfarer on the road of life, taking it one-step-at-a-time into a new work week.
For the record, Milo. No, you can’t have a real dinosaur. Sorry, buddy.