How emotional are your prayers when you reflect on injustice and immorality in society? The angry prayer of Psalm 94 may shock you with its coarseness. Its author speaks bluntly to the Lord as he laments injustice, murder and immorality. Isaiah 59 stresses that God seeks justice and that he grieves when no one fights with him to achieve it. He puts on his armor to fight injustice; it includes the “cloak of vengeance,” a piece of clothing missing from the Christian’s “armor of God” in Ephesians 6. Psalm 94 confronts God with his own values and challenges “the God of vengeance” to take action:
“O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve! O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, and they say, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive” (Psalm 94:1-7).
This prayer writer deplores the evil he observes. The “evildoers ” “kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan.” These opponents of justice strike against the weakest members of society. Widows often fell into poverty; aliens did not enjoy legal protection afforded to citizens. A New Testament passage highlights the degree of evil depicted in the psalm when it describes an entirely opposite behavior as the definition of true religion:
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father , is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).
The historical situations described in Psalm 94 differ in detail from our own. The psalmist most likely describes a military campaign of genocide. The attitudes of those who oppose God’s values and his people, however, have startling parallels in our own time. They disregard the value of life for those weaker than themselves. They scoff at God and deny his ability to intervene. The psalmist assures the “dullest of the people” that God does see, he does discipline the nations; he does know our thoughts.
As the prayer resumes, the psalmist says, “Happy are those whom you discipline, O LORD, and who your teach out of your law, giving them respite from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage, for justice will return to the righteous and all the upright in heart will follow it“(Psalm 94:12-15). We recoil in anger and fear today when we hear of brutal attacks on Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. We stagger in disbelief when cable networks punish celebrities for speaking up for biblical definitions of morality. If we have aligned our faith in God to our nation’s values, we may be experiencing spiritual vertigo now, for right has suddenly become wrong, and bashing values has become tolerance. We need to share the faith of the psalmist as he continues:
“Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers? If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought, ‘My foot is slipping, your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul. . . But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge” (Psalm 94:16-18;22).
The psalm ends with assurance that God will act to punish the wicked. A phrase near the end of the prayer within the psalm captures my attention: “When I thought, ‘My foot is slipping, your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.” When it seems that civilization has been turned upside down, as it did to the psalmist, remembering God’s zeal for justice and his fervent love calms the soul. It is entirely legitimate to express our anger to God so long as we do so with awareness of our sin and his stubborn love for us despite that sin. The prayer of this psalmist that God will “wipe out” the evil reminds me a little of the desire that James and John had to call down fire upon a village of Samaria. Another James reminds us to control our tongues as Christians. Before we pray for destruction of others, let’s pray that they may know the grace of God and have the opportunity to repent. When we pray, and as we act for justice, let’s remember that it is God who wears the cloak of vengeance, not us. We are his ministers of reconciliation.