Praying the Psalms in Christ
ARTICLE BY J. TODD BILLINGS
In this short series, I have explored some of the special challenges that come in interpreting the Psalms of lament as Christian scripture. We have seen how this is not an easy task, particularly if we insist upon praying the Psalms of lament, communally and personally, in light of the rule of faith. In this final post, I explore the question: how do we move forward in interpreting the Psalms of lament as adopted children of the Father, united to Christ by the Spirit?
If we are to interpret the Psalms as Christian scripture, I believe that we need to interpret them “in Christ.” This does not mean interpreting all of the Psalms simply as predictions of Jesus Christ, or as expositions of New Testament doctrine. Indeed, I’m sympathetic to Calvin’s interpretation of the Psalms, who was accused of being a “Judaizer” because he interpreted Psalms attributed to David first and foremost in light of the Old Testament narratives about David. Yet, he did so as a disciple of Christ seeking to know Christ more deeply through David, the king, who ultimately points to Christ’s glorious kingship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer points to a helpful, non-reductive way to address the key question: who prays the Psalms? He says it is “David” and others in Israel; it is also “the church” that prays the Psalms; it is also “I myself” who prays the Psalms. But this is made possible because Jesus Christ prayed and prays the Psalms. Because Jesus Christ prays the Psalms, those who belong to him (the church as God’s people, and as individuals) can pray insofar as he or she “participates in Christ.” In the words of Bonhoeffer:
How is it possible for a man and Jesus Christ to pray the Psalter together? It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God and who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we. Therefore it is the prayer of our human nature assumed by him which comes here before God. It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.”1
In and through and by Jesus Christ, with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament and petition with the Psalmist. We discover this spacious place – of living in Christ – is wide and deep enough for us to petition, to rejoice, and also to join our laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf. Praying laments in this sense, we embody the reality that our lives are not our own, but belong to Jesus Christ. If we belong to Jesus Christ, we join him, through the Psalms, in responding to evil with anger and grief, and to the gifts of God’s creation and new creation with rejoicing.
What does this mean on a congregational level? It means that rather than only turning to lament when we experience crisis, this approach gives us a rationale to make lament a regular part of our rhythm of worship, since it enacts our identity in Christ.
But how are congregations to do this, particularly when some Psalms of lament call down curses upon enemies? To address this, I would like to briefly examine Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reception of a passionate imprecatory Psalm: Psalm 58.
On July 11, 1937, with the shadow of the Nazi regime looming, Bonhoeffer preached his final sermon at Finkenwalde before the seminary was closed by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer preached on Psalm 58. “O God, break the teeth in their mouths,” the Psalmist says. “Tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord.” For “the righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked, such that people will say: There is a reward for the righteous; God is still the judge of the earth.”
How can Christians pray a Psalm of vengeance? Bonhoeffer begins by turning the tables on our expectations: in ourselves, we “cannot pray this Psalm. But not because we are too good (what a shallow notion, what incredible arrogance!), but because we are too sinful ourselves, too evil!” For “only those who are themselves completely without guilt can pray thus. This Psalm of vengeance is the prayer of the innocent.” But how can sinners like ourselves pray this Psalm? He starts with David: he prays this Psalm, and “David himself is not innocent.” However, “it pleased God to prepare in David the one who would be called the Son of David, Jesus Christ.” Thus, David is not praying alone, but with Christ. Likewise, as Christians we pray not in ourselves, but ones who are in Christ. “In David, it is Christ’s own innocence that is also praying this Psalm and with Christ the entire holy church.” For Christ alone is the innocent one who can judge. “It is not we who accuse but Christ.”
Thus, while we cannot administer final justice, we can join our petition to Christ’s — even as we allow him to be the “judge of the earth.” Because we are in a battle against “injustice, violence, and falsehood,” we must lament if we are to testify to Christ. And “in the midst of this raging,” it is Christ himself who “prays this Psalm for us in a vicarious and representative fashion. He accuses the wicked, summoning God’s vengeance and righteousness down upon them, and offering himself on the cross for the sake of the wicked with his own innocent suffering.”2
Bonhoeffer interprets the Psalm “in Christ” — such that Christ himself is the innocent sufferer who prays; this same Christ is the only one who can be the righteous “judge of the earth.” The congregation is not to use this Psalm to curse their own enemies, or to justify earthly vengeance. Praying the Psalm moves those praying to avoid sentimentalizing evil: there is terrible “injustice, violence, and falsehood” in the world, as Bonhoeffer well knew in the dark days when he preached, during Hitler’s horrible reign. Evil is to be resisted. But always as ones who belong to the crucified and risen Lord. Christians do not testify to this true Lord’s reign by seeking vengeance, but by hoping in the covenant Lord who takes up the cross for sinners like ourselves.
Not all readers will be fully persuaded by Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Psalm 58. His approach is not the only way to receive a Psalm of lament “in Christ.” Some will find Augustine or Luther or Calvin to be better partners in helping us to receive particular Psalms of lament as Christian scripture. However, one approaches the specific challenges within these Psalms, I think that these overall priorities should be prominent if they are to be received as Christian scripture: Psalms of lament need to be prayed, individually and communally; they should be sung, memorized, interiorized, as gifts from God; they also need to be received from the standpoint of ones who are “in Christ,” following the way of Jesus who taught that we should love, not hate, our enemies. Thus, Psalms of lament should not be used to curse our personal enemies, but to bring our anger and grief before the Almighty Lord, moving us toward trust in God’s covenant promises. In lament, we trust in the Lord’s covenant promises even when they seem to be coming apart, even when they feel like shards of glass on our path, reminding us that “this is not the way we are supposed to be.” Even in those moments of sharp anguish, there is a trust and a hope. Because Christ, the innocent sufferer, has gone before us. He has taken on human suffering, exhausting it of its finality. The crucified and risen Lord will have the final word. In the meantime, we do not pray the Psalms of lament alone.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970), 20-21.
2. Quotations from Bonhoeffer’s sermon are from “Sermon on Psalm 58, Finkenwalde” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-37, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2013) 963-970.
Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His most recent book is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. This series is adapted from a plenary lecture delivered to the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Grand Rapids, MI): March 11, 2016.