From the Psalms:
O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary [Morning Psalm] – Psalm 80:4 (NRSV) – August 4, 2014)
I am becoming quite fond of the New Revised Standard Version’s Psalter! It keeps hitting me with new ways, often disturbing ways of understanding the hymns of David, which I have habitually read from the Book of Common Prayer (1979) since being ordained. However, I’m finding new insights by using the NRSV and other translations instead of the Prayer Book.
Take the fourth verse of this morning’s psalm, for example. The BCP version is:
O Lord God of Hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?
There’s a huge difference between this and the NRSV’s rendering, a staggering difference. God being angered “despite” our prayers is a very, very different thing from God being angry “with” our prayers! The Authorized (King James) version uses yet another preposition:
O Lord God of Hosts, how long wilt thou be angry against the prayer of thy people.
Any of these is a valid interpretation of the somewhat ambiguous Hebrew word ‘ad which has a root meaning of “until” and, frankly, the King James is perhaps the best because it picks up that ambiguity.
The Prayer Book’s “despite” suggests that our prayers ought to be acceptable to God, that God’s anger persists in the face of supplications and petitions which should be satisfactory to God and should placate God’s anger. The NRSV’s “with,” on the other hand, would imply that our prayers are not acceptable, that they are the cause of God’s anger. The KJV’s “against” could mean either.
In any event, the NRSV’s translation throws the question in the Psalm back at me in a way the BCP version never has, although even there it should. The question really is not how long will God be angry; the question might be, “What is it about my prayer that angers God or fails to assuage God’s discontent? What is inadequate or unacceptable in my prayer?”
Asking that question, however, reminds me of two things. First, I recall what I was taught about prayer as a child – that its purpose is not to change God, but to change me. The reason we pray is not to change God’s mind, but to conform our minds to God’s. Second, I recall a line from an ancient hymn: “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.” Remembering those two things, the question changes again: “Is God truly angry, or am I [is the Psalmist] simply perceiving God as angry because I am not conformed to God’s love, because I am somehow out of sync, out of a proper relationship with God?”
The Psalm’s question to God, “How long will you . . . .?” is really God’s question of me, “How long will I . . . .?” How long will I persist in attitudes and behaviors that distort my relationship with God, that make me perceive God’s love as anger? God can’t (or won’t) answer that question; only I can.
Good question, God, really good question.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.