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Praying from the Pit
Psalm 139: 17-22*

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

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Across the 24 verses of Psalm 139 is an amazing array of images, including what Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in Praying the Psalms, describes as two powerful themes: the pit and the wing.

The pit includes those passages that describe the difficult, gritty and very human experiences of disorientation, pain, rage, anguish, lament and longing.

The wing can be found in the images in the psalms that soar in the beauty, majesty, a sense that all is right with the world and our worship of God is the only possible response. Our selected verses this morning cover the range.

Living long enough with psalms – or any good song or poem or story – continues to repay us as readers each time we return to the well. This is true in part because the psalms hold the full range of human experiences from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the pit to the wing, from hating one’s enemies to the vast sum of God’s thoughts.

After several weeks of reading and praying this psalm earlier in January for a course I was teaching in prayer and pastoral care for seminarians, I had one of those moments of repayment for my efforts. I had been reading vv. 17 and 18 this way:

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you. 

I am still with you. I read this as a continuation of verses earlier in Psalm 139. A theme in those verses is finding no place where I might escape from divine presence. Even in the end of my days I remain with God.

But I came to see it in the moment of reading the passage aloud to my class in this way:

I am still with you. Contemplating the vastness of God’s presence both requires and enables in me a deep and profound stillness in my body and mind.

Interpretations of vv. 19-22, however, have taken even more effort and patience to see what they offer. Fortunately I’ve been reading and praying this text with many people over the last six weeks: children, adults, youth, college and seminary students. And we have discovered together that . . .

These verses raise more questions than they answer:

* Who is my enemy?

* Does God have enemies?

* Does God really take sides with me against my enemies?

* Is it a plea for help with those people and things that seem to assault us?

* Or could it be possible that we simply wish for God to take our side or imagine that we are taking God’s side?

* Are there truly troublesome enemies of God that are not people but are nonetheless worthy of our dedication to work against them? (for example poverty, injustice, war or disease)

* Or are these verses of the Psalmist something more like a confessional of deep-down feelings of rage and self-loathing, feelings that make us so vulnerable we project them onto God in an effort to defend ourselves against their pain?

* If this poetry is a residual of deep internal pain, managed by objectifying it and making it into God’s problem, then how do we move through such difficult thoughts and feelings?

* There is a kind of satisfaction in the vengeance of these psalms – kind of the “‘get ‘em God! And I’m right behind you!” And yet I am returned to the question that is most important to me for this text: what does it mean for me to be still in its presence? How can I let it speak an honest and truthful word to me out of all these possibilities (and more I have not yet thought)?

I invite you into a stillness, a quiet, a solitude of thought, and I’m daring you really to sit and look head on at these verses and see what the psalmist might be saying, what your own body and mind might be telling you, how God may be speaking in this moment . . .

Does it take courage and audacity to pray these verses? Or does it take a kind of “not knowing” to hear them more honestly? Or does it take patience and vulnerability to pray them and see where they push deep into our own experience?

Let us hear them once more and pray them in stillness and silence.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!*
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

[silence]

Closing prayer:

17 How weighty to [us] are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 [We] try to count them—they are more than the sand;
[We] come to the end—[we are] still with you.

Selah.

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* During Lent I am posting prayer experiences that I lead in my congregation on Sundays. This is the second in the series. It is a meditation on a difficult portion of Psalm 139. The silence in the service lasted a couple of minutes, opened and closed by sounding a chime. Worshipers were invited to open their pew Bibles (NRSV) as we considered the psalm together.

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