Psalm 79 - They have poured out their blood like water

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A Psalm of Asaph.
1) O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2) They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3) They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
4) We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.

5) How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6) Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name.
7) For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.

8) Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
9) Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins,
for your name’s sake.
10) Why should the nations say,
"Where is their God?"
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes.
11) Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.
12) Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors
the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!
13) Then we your people, the flock of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

Psalm 79
Proper 20, Sunday between September 18 and September 24, Year C, verses 1-9

This psalm, like its nearby companion Psalm 74, speaks to the trauma of the invasion(s) of Israel and Jerusalem. It voices some common reactions to trauma: anger, identification of the cause (often personalized, and often to establish blame/responsibility), and a desire for vengeance/vindication/justice.

And it names the trauma:
  • Our nation, city, and holy place have been violated, our homes ruined
  • Our people have been slaughtered
  • Our dead are disrespected (even by us), they lie unburied, left to be eaten by animals or to rot
  • We are mocked and derided by those around us
  • We fear that God is against us
So many wounds. It is hard to do the triage, to know which injury is the most severe, which needs immediate treatment, which is life-threatening, which one cuts to the core.

The fear that God is behind this is somewhat countered in the prayer of the traumatized, who prays, and even expects, that God will reverse the situation. This does not seem to be the primary problem.

From the rest of the psalm, we could easily conclude that the humiliation of defeat looms largest. The mocking aggravates the original wounds, and puts the victim in a place of shame, emphasizing their weakness, their done-unto status. We know that stigma, derision, mocking can cause deep pain, and there is no doubt that the psalm describes this suffering, which is in the present tense. It is happening now.

However, I am going straight to the bleeding wound. The humiliation is real. But you cannot get more real than the trauma of violence, or a community ripped to pieces, of neighbors and loved ones slaughtered, their blood poured out like water. There is the trauma of witnessing this. And there is the trauma of surviving, living with the reality that you could not protect them, could not even honor their bodies by burial.

Trauma is first and foremost about our humanity. It is the damage inflicted on our bodies. The damage inflicted on our minds, through experiencing terror and pain. And it is the damage inflicted upon those we know, when bonds of love, of custom, of commerce and social relationships are cut, shattered, broken and burned.

While the troubles of today are right before us, yesterday's wounds are still open. We can see they were never treated, for the injuring is on-going, even if the spilled blood has dried on the pavement stones.

"Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes." The one praying links the blood to the shame and pain of defeat, and cries out for vindication.

Hear, O God, the groans of your people in chains, stay the planned executions. Reverse the situation!

"Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors [enemies] the taunts with which they taunted you" [and us].

We might hope for a different kind of healing. But we can embrace the prayer's honesty.

The ones who have been harmed have the greatest claim on justice. Punishing the ones who hurt us feels like the best outcome. Nothing else will do. "Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever."

If that is our prayer, that is our prayer.
     Help us, O God of our salvation,
     for the glory of your name;
     deliver us, and forgive our sins,
     for your name’s sake.

Credits:
Uncredited image.
* New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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