Sunday, January 18, 2009

Edited Out of Psalm 139

I'm by no means unique when it comes to treasuring Psalm 139. It's always been one of my favorites. I love its reminder of just how intimately God knows and loves us, and its ringing affirmation that no matter where we find ourselves - in the heights of heaven, in the depths of the grave, or even "in the uttermost part of the sea" (v. 8) - God's guiding and sustaining presence leads us and holds us fast.

It's precisely because I love Psalm 139 so much that I am irritated with the Prayer Book and the Revised Common Lectionaries. For both lectionaries typically edit out two of the most powerful verses in this psalm, lumping them together with verses which curse the wicked and express hatred for enemies (vv. 18-21 in The Book of Common Prayer Psalter). Here are the excised verses:

Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and know my restless thoughts.

Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
and lead me in the way that is everlasting (vv. 22-23).

It's one thing to edit out verses that call for vengeance and hatred (and I say that having written before about how problematic it is to reject the expression of the full range of human feelings expressed by the Psalms as though they are unacceptable or even un-Christian). But editing out these last verses of Psalm 139 means cutting out one of the most beautiful petitions in the Psalter, and a petition that provides an ideal model for breath prayer. And so it's a real shame that we almost never hear these words in public worship.


grace10 said...

I thought the same thing this am, but am embarrassed to say I couldn't recall all of what was missing! Thanks for getting me/us on track.

Perpetua said...

This is really interesting. Do you know how we can find out why these verses were excised?

It seems like this is cutting out the confession of sin/ examination of conscience.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comment, grace10. It's good to know I wasn't the only one who noticed and was concerned about this.

I'm not sure exactly why these verses were omitted, Perpetua. But now that I'm taking another look, I note that the RCL also omits verses 6 thru 11 as well.

For me, that additional omission mitigates the concern that this is like cutting out the confession of sin/examination of conscience. It could be a misguided attempt to save time, in which case its something just as bad or even worse.

Joe Rawls said...

I edit out the really nasty psalm verses as I say the Office; I have few compunctions about doing this since the church gives me lots of other chances to experience anger! However, the excisions referred to in your post are an example of political correctness gone off the deep end. God forbid we should be made to feel guilty ("negative") about anything.

Bryan Owen said...

I'm almost totally with you, Joe. Except that I'm persuaded by Kathleen Norris that we need "the mirror of the psalms" perhaps especially for the nasty sides of ourselves.

If you've not read Kathleen Norris' chapter entitled "The Paradox of the Psalms" in her book The Cloister Walk, I encourage you to do so. I think it's a must read and I think you will find it intriguing. If you're interested, I've written about it here.

plsdeacon said...

It almost seems as if the Lectionary is designed so that we are not confronted with difficult verses of scripture or the psalms.

There are some verses where it makes sense to skip, but I always read the omitted verses when I say the daily offices or when I am reading the coming Sunday's lections. It is odd the things you will find if you do.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Perhaps one of the limitations of the lectionary is that it establishes a kind of "canon within the canon." Nevertheless, I think that such a limitation is preferable to a non-lectionary approach that gives the preacher/officiant the sole discretion as to what we hear read and interpreted through preaching. That runs the very real risk of turning into the tyranny of taste.

Either way, I think this points to the need for all members of the Church to be biblically literate.