How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee. Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men. For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain. Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139:17-24, excerpt from Psalm 139, lectionary text for Jan. 17, 2021
(King James Version because that’s what I’d memorized way back when.)
I memorized this psalm when I was in college. I wandered campus reciting it, gestured with my hands to show ‘beset behind and before,’ quickened my speech to pull the darkness over me, then slowed my cadence to count thoughts more numerous than sand. With dramatic passion, I rejected the wicked, then with a hastening urgency addressed the LORD directly, alibiing my firmness. ‘Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? And am I not grieved with those that rise up against thee?’ See me, God? I have ranged myself with you against all those ‘bloody men.’ I am on your side. So you are on my side. Yes? My tone implied the question; hinted at uncertainty; perhaps accounted for the difficulty I had in memorizing the last verses. ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts….’ I chanted them formally, as if to distance the risk of such a prayer.
Psalm 139 has felt so privately mine that I am surprised to find it in the lectionary cycle. It expresses a relationship too intimate to recite in community — ‘You have searched me and known me ….’ The lectionary portion reinforces that sense as it includes only the verses that dwell on the relationship of psalmist and LORD — omitting any reference to the wicked, to enemies, to any other that would complicate or contradict the connection so intense and pure and personal. As if this is the only axis of relationship that is. Yet for two weeks, now, of all the psalm’s poetry, the lines that have lingered are those omitted from the lectionary. I find myself pondering ‘perfect hatred.’ The phrase catches and sticks in a mind still disturbed by the violence at the Capitol as a symptom of anger and fear and hate that is not new only newly fomented. The inauguration was at most a pause in the storm. Division persists.
This practice of writing words is personal. This is a devotion, not a manifesto. I write for my own need and faith relationship; theology (if that), not politics. The presenting offense that day was against the Constitution, not the Bible. It pertains to the way we relate to each other in and as this nation, regardless of how any of us relates to God. Except, except … I am commanded not just to love the LORD but my neighbor. I cannot ponder my own personal escape into the ‘uttermost parts of the sea’ and ignore the violent tearing of our national fabric. Yes, it was a a fabric flawed in its original weaving, but the pattern of its dreamed ideal has a beauty worth furthering. This leaky vessel should be rewoven not ripped apart. We are all in the same sea and so far away from shore.
A day or two after the insurrection, The Washington Post quoted a demonstrator still crowing over the battle for the Capitol, justifying the violence by distinguishing opponents from neighbors: “These police are protecting the villains inside that building. Somebody back in a small town, that’s my neighbor,” [the interviewee] said. Maybe it was happenstance that the man quoted defined the ‘villains’ of Congress in opposition to those whose identity he construed in terms of literal proximity. To me, though, ‘my neighbor’ connected immediately with Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self, and the man’s definition was at odds with Jesus’ teaching how to love as neighbor, stretching ‘self’ across a striking line of division. Love of neighbor is God’s ‘royal law.’ The law goes farther still: Love the stranger among you as yourself. Love your enemy.
That one quote — of the entire article — went deep and twisted. It evoked words I love and claim and am claimed by, yet its undermining revision passed unremarked. Either it was overlooked or was seen as more of the same from one among a crowd which had perpetrated violence under — literally — the banner of Christ. I was angry. I hurt. These words that to me are treasure were mistreated, made to be of little account. Into this miasma of exhausting emotion came Psalm 139. Its proud proclamation of ‘perfect hatred’ complicated my pondering of neighbor-love. What is ‘perfect hatred’? How does it fit in a faith that is lived not just as a private intimacy between me and the LORD but in relationship with the national neighborhood?
Some commentaries assert that these verses are ‘unpleasant,’ ‘ugly,’ yet justified as an example of honesty before the LORD. The honesty — not the hate — is what we are to emulate: name the hate so that God can transform it to love. I am not convinced. The flow of the psalm itself does not suggest that the hate is meant to be a transitory state, set aside as perfection in love is reached. The hate described is perfect, complete, full. How can the proclamation of perfect hate be a part of the process of being perfected in love?
Perhaps the answer begins in following the flow of the psalm. Say it aloud. Allow the cadences to pull me in and pattern my thoughts. Begin with the declaration of God’s presence, close as breath. Recite the impossibility of escaping from God — and then the truth that enemies make it difficult to experience God’s presence. ‘Depart from me therefore!’ Then pause. Remember. Neither I nor the wicked can depart from God’s presence. All those prior verses made that plain. We are bound together in this world, its morning wings and sea surrounding, its light and its dark, its already-written, still-imperfect, yet coming-to-be. Take a fresh breath and pray those last two verses. Claim perfect hatred not as passionate emotion against the other but as passionate commitment to the LORD. That commitment requires the risk of the prayer to be divinely searched, divinely tried, that I may learn to oppose in myself that which opposes the LORD, that I may oppose it as well in any other. The end of the psalm takes me back to its beginning, the declaration that, bidden or unbidden, God has searched, God has known. God will do so whether we ask or not. Bidding God’s knowledge of me, I bid my own of God. This is the axis of relationship that makes the others possible.
‘Lead me in the way everlasting.’
Lead me in the way of love. Lead me to long and work and live for love’s perfection. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of stranger, love of enemy, love of myself. Love of this fragile vessel that is our national neighborhood.
Cup my palm as if God’s right hand, holding us afloat on this wide sea that is not our own.