Desperate Preaching Psalm 5:1-8
Though Psalm 5 finds a place in the modern lectionaries, it invokes a challenge to preaching the gospel and the entirety of the Scriptures that often leads to passages like this being overlooked, ignored, or forgotten. Psalm 5 holds an interesting place in those ‘lists’ created by scholars over the past 100 years that help commentators, scholars, preachers, and philosophers create handles and methodologies of investigation that lead to what we have learned to call academic discourse, a discourse that does not often find its way into the modern pulpit. Depending on the author, Psalm 5 can be found within the groupings of Psalms listed as ‘Lament,’ ‘Disorientation,’ and ‘Imprecatory,’ and certainly it fits well within all three designations. These three words are interesting and difficult words in the arsenal of Christianity because they are usually accompanied by words like intolerance, judgment, anger, punishment, divine favor, carnality, hatred, adversary, zealous, enemy, curse, revenge, malice, sin, triumphant, and righteousness, words that do not often find their way into the contemporary pulpit. Such words and their attending theology and are at best ethically perplexing and often morally bewildering for Christian preachers given the current ‘church culture’ vs. ‘post-modern ethics’ in the twenty-first century.
Further, the difficult nature and broad appeal of this Psalm and the others in the lists that it inhabits in Christian scholarship demands some attention from the modern preacher. It has drawn the attention of formidable theologians, ancient to modern, that when actually considered as authoritative show the dilemma that preaching is up against in our age. Clement of Alexandria (sin, righteousness), Augustine (hatred, carnal, justice, enemies), Calvin (wickedness, enemies, favor), Wesley (fear, dread, devour, condemn, punish), Vos (ignore), Kaiser (vendetta, zeal), and Brueggeman (disorientation, forgiveness, vengeance). Given this list, it is easy to see the challenge. So what are we preachers to do given all this and the challenges that arise within such a discourse with the Scriptures?
Given the broad range of options here and the ideal that all Scripture is inspired by God, ignorance is not an option. Psalm 5 and the other psalms on the lists invoked in such a discourse deserve a careful reading of God and those who follow him. The good number of Psalms that fit into these discourse headings or lists demand a reorientation of inclusion, a theological accounting of the world as God sees it and reveals it to his church, and that particularly as that revelation presents a Christian worldview (that interconnectedness of language, gestures, symbols, and ideas that give meaning and coherence to our existence ala Brueggeman’s The Bible Makes Sense, revised 2003) that takes the fullness of our humanity into account in the perplexing times in which we live. The argument is simple: If we do not address the fullness of the Scriptures and ignore the difficult reality of wickedness, sin, our own desperation, and the need for justice and forgiveness in this world, we preach something less than the gospel, that reality of faith which is God’s life and our humanity in salvific relationship with one another.
Preaching Psalm 5 as Lament: Lament is “a voice of love and profound caring, a vision of what could have been and of grief over its loss, of tough hope painfully releasing the object of its hope, of personal responsibility and frustration, of sorrow and anger mixed, of accepted loss but with energy enough to go on.” Preaching lament ties Psalm 5 to the words uttered by Jesus from another psalm of lament on the cross (Psalm 22—My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?) and affords the preacher the opportunity to invoke God’s judgment and restoration/redemption in the midst of grief, injustice, frustration, and even anger.
Disorientation, as Walter Brueggeman notes, is the place where we find ourselves in the pit, the place of forlornness and yet not without hope. Preaching disorientation demands that we preach the complete cycle of salvation—from orientation (awareness of God) to disorientation (the pit) to reorientation (new and more complete awareness of God and all that life with him demands and provides). Preaching Psalm 5 as disorientation allows the opportunity for preaching this psalm as a regular part of liturgically oriented prayer or following the Wesleyan ordo salutis of provenience-conviction-salvation/holiness. These schemae offer the preacher the occasion to preach theological understanding as spiritual formation and the hearer the possibility to grow in wisdom as they mature in their relationship with God.
Preaching Imprecation, is the most difficult path of sermonic construction, as it demands a theological accounting of God and his wrath and judgment. “An "imprecation" is an invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one's enemies, or the enemies of God.” Preaching imprecation requires great skill and pastoral care and should not be entered into lightly. Imprecation is a reminder that God hates evil and desires redemption, but the in between—given all that there is to see in events of Scripture and the atonement of Jesus-preaching is tricky. Imprecation is a call to a deep, deep view of God’s character and holiness that entreats the full view of salvation history as it is revealed to us in the scriptures.
The questions that arise in this text are profound, multifaceted, and serious and preaching Psalm 5 must reflect this. The preacher cannot dodge the questions of evil, sin, the suffering of the righteous, and honest human emotions and remain true to the text or to God. These are words of desperation and asking God to do justice, to bring a righteous accounting to the perpetrator, in the worst of situations. What is God’s justice? Do the evil and wicked deserve punishment? What kind of God acts this way? These questions and a myriad of other ethical dilemmas are here and demand an accounting.
The first rule of good homiletics is that all preaching is about God. Given the situation in Psalm 5, the other Imprecatory Psalms, and even the lament of Jesus (Psalm 22) that is often hard to remember. Given our world of terrorism and its ever-ongoing war, an era of growing global political and religious intolerance, and the violence that constantly attends the never-ending news cycle, this is often hard to remember. Our preaching is first about God and so is this psalm. Pastoral care in preaching is always a reminder that God hates evil and demands justice, but justice and judgment are his to give.
Preaching Psalm 5 should be a reminder of the stark reality of those who have been subject to evil. The accounting of the evildoer that we give should be a prayer that asks God for justice and reminds us that such an accounting is the opportunity for us to show faithfulness (Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies— make your way straight before me. v. 8) in the face of evil and those who do evil to us. The strong language of imprecation and lament (Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with malice. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongues they tell lies. Declare them guilty, O God! Let their intrigues be their downfall. Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against you. vv. 9-10) from us should be a reminder that God is at the center of all things, even when we are filled with the desire for vengeance. Such a preached word can and should be more than asking God to ‘get them’ for us—it is a reminder of the reality of sin and our responsibility to trust the work of God in a fallen world. Romans 12:14 demands that we bless our enemies and refuse to curse them—even in the worst of personal situations.
Further, preaching Psalm 5 is the opportunity to remind those us of our solidarity with those who are subject to injustice even when we are not in the pit. We have a responsibility to stand with all God’s children and in our world, this should be a constant in our preaching given our place in history. This will take courage and resiliency as God’s justice demands our forgiveness of those who perpetrate evil against us. In our desire for vengeance, we must preach justice. In our expressions of honest hatred, we must preach repentance and the call for our own cleansing. Disorientated theology calls for a reorientation of true faith. In our preaching of the full gospel, we must remind ourselves that injustice anywhere—even in us--is a threat to justice everywhere. Desperate times call for desperate preaching. Don’t ignore Psalm 5. It calls us to faithfulness and trust in God, even in the pit.
 See the list of Imprecatory Psalms (Pss 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140) and an explanation at https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Imprecatory-Psalms.
 See https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1156-do-the-imprecatory-psalms-and-christian-ethics-clash.
 Craddock, Fred B.; Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990); p.229.
 Brueggeman, Walter; Praying the Psalms; (Cascade Books, 2007). See also: http://www.angelfire.com/journal2/boustrophedon/THROUGH_THE_PSALMS.pdf for a summary of Brueggeman’s schematic understanding of the Psalms.
 See J. Carl Laney, A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms, https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/19-psalms/text/articles/laney-imprecatory-bsac.pdf