Why Psalm 104:35a needs to be included in the reading for Pentecost Sunday

by Ken Sehested

The lectionary psalm for Pentecost Sunday (104:24-34, 35b) omits the wrathful premise (35a) of the final verse, which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Only then does the latter half of the verse return to proprietous devotion: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!”

I’m guessing the lectioners omitted that appeal for fear of inciting unruly discontent within the temple of pious obeisance and prudent civility.

Yet there is authoritative precedent for such editing. Did not Jesus, in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth’s temple, drop the first part of Isaiah’s closing line in chapter 61:1-2? After reciting “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (vv. 1:-2b),” he stopped short of saying “. . . and the day of vengeance of our God.”

The assembled crowd was impressed at the erudition of its local boy: “And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. . . .”

So far, so good. But then Jesus (as is said) stopped preachin’ and got to meddlin’, as he expounded on the text, indicating that Israel’s deity was not bound by tribal prejudice, saying that the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, ignoring domestic needs, were sent to minister to members of Israel’s enemies (vv. 24-27). The crowd’s rave turned to rage.

Sacralizing vengeance—giving divine authority to human bloodlust—is repeatedly forbidden for those whose feet are shod with the Gospel of Peace.

So what are we to make of these texts, including the admonition of St. Paul: “Be angry, but sin not” (Ephesians 4:26)?

Anger over injustice is always—always—appropriate. Becoming inured, acclimated, to the presence of oppression and subjugation is the very definition of being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2), to the ascendance of the Deceiver’s disordering of Creation’s intention. That one thrives on the blood of recrimination, with its ever-escalating spiral of violence.

Recall the pledge of Lamech, great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve—making a vengeful vow that echoes to this day: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23).

But for people of faith, wrath’s clamor requires temperance; namely, fidelity to Heaven’s repeated injunction: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:17-19).

To be sure, the psalmist’s imprecatory rage is processed in lament before God—and is no sanction for lethal vengeance, however just our intent. But as long as the assaults now raining in the streets of the meek never raise an ache in our bodies nor a bruise on our hearts, we will never know the urgency of the Advocate’s liberating word.

Intercession implies a certain interposition. Faithfulness to the Way of Jesus implies risk to our own reputation, our own security, even our own body.

To pray intemperate prayers is to acknowledge the outrage; it is to be shaken from indifference; it is to confess that God is not neutral in the affairs of the earth. To issue such pestilent petitions, there in the very sanctuary of praise, is to proclaim the violation an affront not just to human decency but to the Holy One whose name’s sake is at stake: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker” (Proverbs 14:31).

Spiritual life begins in processing pain, as Richard Rohr notes; and pain not transformed will surely be passed along. Offering our inflamed impulses to God—parking them at Heaven’s doorstep—expresses an act of trust that, in the end, the Beloved will make the crooked straight, will humble the heights and exalt every hollow (Isaiah 40:3-4, Luke 3:5).

To bring grief to speech is itself a sign we have not given up on the Promise of a new heaven and a new earth—a Promise that metabolizes sorrow into joy: joy more sturdy than glee, joy that creates buoyancy in the midst of tumultuous storms, joy which converts the miserly into the magnanimous.

Blessed are you who entrust your rage to the Advocate for redress. Blessed are you who mourn in the midst of deprivation—for neighbors near or afar, acknowledging that your own sake is also at stake—for your Comforter hears and hurries toward the age when all tears will be dried and death itself comes undone (Revelation 21:4).

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