Psalm 109 is, perhaps, not the best place to begin reading the Psalms after a break. This psalm is full of that hatred of one’s enemy that we have already seen elsewhere in the Psalms. C. S. Lewis notes rightly that, “the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth.” He suggests that Psalm 109 is perhaps the supreme example of this hatred in the Psalms.
The poet prays that an ungodly man may rule over his enemy and that “Satan” may stand at his right hand (5). This probably does not mean what a Christian reader naturally supposes. The “Satan” is an accuser, perhaps an informer. When the enemy is tried, let him be convicted and sentenced, “and let his prayer be turned into sin” (6). This again means, I think, not his prayers to God, but his supplications to a human judge, which are to make things all the hotter for him (double the sentence because he begged for it to be halved). May his days be few, may his job be given to someone else (7). When he is dead may his orphans be beggars (9). May he look in vain for anyone in the world to pity him (11). Let God always remember against him the sins of his parents (13).
What use can be made of such a Psalm in our devotional life? Lewis notes helpfully, first, what use we must not make of it….
…we must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious. We must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves. Only after these two admissions have been made can we safely proceed. (Reflections on the Psalms, the chapter on “The Cursings”)
Lewis suggests two reasons why the Psalmists display such hatred. One is because they themselves were severely persecuted. This hatred is a reaction to their own suffering. A second reason why the Psalmists probably displayed such hatred is because they cared more about right and wrong than many modern people do. This does not justify the hatred, but it does help the reader to understand it. Lewis suggests later in Reflections on the Psalms that the best use we can make of these cursing psalms is not to adopt the same attitude of hatred toward our enemies. After all, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. However, what we can do with these psalms is allow them to lead us to a hatred of sin, our own sin in particular, and to the practice of what Paul calls mortification, putting these sins in ourselves to death.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Mortification is a life-long process of taking our sins to Jesus and allowing him to nail them to the cross, and also allowing him to replace our evil with the practices that lead to life.
These four Psalms (109-112) provide us in microcosm a view of the great variety there is in the Psalms. Psalm 110, for example, is a Messianic Psalm, and perhaps the most oft-quoted piece of the Old Testament that appears in the New. The fact that the early Christians saw so many references to the Messiah in the Psalms tells us that they were steeped in this book.
111 is a beautiful psalm of praise. Verse 7 is especially good: “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.” Lewis notes that the word for “true” in this verse can also be translated “faithful” or “sound”; what is in the Hebrew sense, “true” is what “holds water”, what doesn’t “give way” or collapse. In the Law, we find the real, the correct, the stable, well-grounded directions for living. Lewis says,
The law answers the question “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” (119, 9). It is like a lamp, a guide (105). There are many rival directions for living, as the Pagan cultures all round us show. When the poets call the directions or “rulings” of Jahweh “true” they are expressing the assurance that these, and not those others, are the “real” or “valid” or unassailable ones; that they are based on the very nature of things and the very nature of God…. Their delight in the Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian’s delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields.
Psalm 112 is a good companion to 111 in that it reveals to the reader the reward of the one who builds his or her life firmly on the foundation of God’s truth. Most important among the benefits of the righteous is, perhaps, that “their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.”