Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Psalm 109:8 Controversy

I'm a bit late on this, having just read about a religiously-themed slogan appearing these days on T-shirts, web sites, and bumper stickers. The slogan? "Pray for Obama, Psalm 109:8."

To those who don't dig any deeper, the words and Bible citation may be anything from laudable to innocuous.

But people taking the time to look up the passage are registering differing views, ranging from laughter to outrage.

Psalm 109:8, not among the Bible's most well-known passages, reads, "May his days be few; may another seize his position."

Seen in isolation, the encouragement to pray for the president linked with the verse citation, could be a clever call to pray for Mr. Obama to be a one-term president, the rough equivalent of a conservative talk show's host saying that he hoped Mr. Obama would fail. Taken this way, the slogan is nothing more than the exercise of free speech by opponents of the President.

But is something more sinister intended? After all, the election of Mr. Obama has seen a threefold increase in presidential death threats and the next verse of the psalm says:
May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.
Of course, no one can peer into the souls of those who came up with the slogan. They may be innocent of the sentiments some see in their handiwork.

But those not familiar with the Bible might wonder what sentiments like those appearing in both verses are doing in a book which, at least in my Christian tradition, is seen as God's Word and is often called, "God's love letter to the human race."

The book of Psalms in the Old Testament is the ancient hymn book of God's people, the Jews. Many of its 150 worship songs are attributed to King David, as is this one. According to German Biblical scholar Artur Weiser, Psalm 109 is: individual lament, prayed by a man who, if we understand the psalm aright, is accused of being guilty of the death of a poor man (v.6), presumably by means of magically effective curses (vv.17ff.). It can be assumed that the accusation brought by his adversaries at the trial...was one of sorcery, which was forbidden [by God] and liable to punishment...
The psalm then, presents the plea to God of a man, presumably King David, someone the Bible describes as a man after God's own heart, who believes himself guiltless of the crime of which he's accused, including his recitation of the false words spoken against him by his enemies.

The adversaries, David tells God, have called for "a wicked man" to be his accuser. Those same adversaries then call, in verse 8, for the man's removal from office and then, in verse 9, for his death.

As far as I'm concerned, even if the creators of the Psalm 109:8 slogan intended only to be funny in expressing their opposition to the President, they appear to be ignorant of the context, background, and actual meaning of the passage.

The sentiments, quoted by David, aren't those of commendable people of faith, but of people who oppose the will, Word, and justice of God. Psalm 109:8 represents the Biblically-condemned "prayers" or wishes of people who want to manipulate the justice system to condemn an innocent man.

Does any praying person really want to be in opposition to God in this way?*

Besides, there is sound Biblical reason for Christians to actually pray for their political leaders, even those they may see as opponents to Christians and the Church.

In the apostle Peter's first letter to the first-century churches of Asia Minor, a letter which is now part of the Bible's New Testament, he encourages believers to "honor the emperor." Unlike the sloganeers, Peter's exhortation comes without tongue in cheek, despite the fact that his letter deals with how Christians should respond to suffering and also persecution, some it no doubt at the hands of the governing authorities of the Roman Empire under which the early Christians lived.

If the sloganeers are aligning their prayers with the sentiments of those who, in Old Testament times, opposed God and King David, they're Biblically ignorant. More seriously, from my perspective as a Christian, they may be guilty of making light of God and of the gift of prayer in order to make a political statement.

If the slogan-makers really are maliciously and "subliminally" calling for prayers for the death of our President, they're worse than ignorant or impious.

I suspect that they're simply ignorant. In any case, I don't want the T-shirt.

*In Acts, the New Testament's history of the Church, starting from Jesus' ascension through about 65AD, Peter cites Psalm 109:8 in reference to Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus resulted in Jesus being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Peter does so, Judas is dead, by his own hand and, according to Peter, as a member of the inner circle among Jesus' disciples, a group of twelve known as apostles, needs to be replaced.

[TY to Policy in Practice for linking to the Monitor article.]

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