Several times within the past few days, I’ve received emails admonishing me not to buy a bright yellow T-shirt that says: “Pray for Obama, Psalms 109:8.” If you haven’t read that verse, it says: “Let his years be few, and let another take his office.” (KJV)
In the game of politics and political parties, some variant of this prayer is whispered, shouted, and muttered through clenched teeth—without Biblical reference—throughout the four-year term of any President. When a Republican is in office, Democrats pray for another to take his office, and vice versa.
It’s tradition, and it’s no big deal—except in this case, many have decided that the verse on these shirts and bumper stickers is intended to include subsequent verses in that chapter, namely Psalms 109:9-13. These five additional verses, which are referenced nowhere on the shirt, infer that we should pray for God to hurt or kill our enemies—yes, God’s other children. For weeks now, folks have been whipping themselves into a frenzy, concerned that everyone who wears the shirt poses a threat to our President’s safety.
I could be wrong, but it seems that the only real threat here is that there are people who actually believe that God responds affirmatively to mean-spirited vengeful prayer requests. But what else are they to believe, if the Holy Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God? That means that every word is true, even if those words characterize God as behaving more like Satan and less like The Divine.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of circuitous discussions with those who believe in the rage-filled, relentlessly unforgiving, kick your kids out, kill-every-living-thing God portrayed in the Old Testament. Typically, they discount these rants by asserting that God changed in the New Testament.
No, it wasn’t that the Jewish rabbi named Yeshua (colloquially known as Jesus) perceived God as more benevolent than the scribes portrayed Him in the Hebrew scriptures. They insist that God actually committed genocide, crammed predators and their prey in the cargo hold of a boat with one window for weeks while bloated human bodies floated all around it, contaminating the water, killing the fish, all the fruit-bearing trees and other vegetation. God did those diabolical inhumane things. But He changed after that, and the New Testament proves it: God decided to forgive all of His children’s sins, on one condition: The Prince of Peace had to be subjected to three days of horrific sadistic torture.
Really? Why did Jesus teach that God was unconditionally forgiving before he was heinously tortured, if it didn’t happen until after his death? And why did God want the Romans to savagely stop the good rabbi from teaching that God was a loving Father? His important message and ministry had lasted only three years. If you have the answers, please free me from my confusion.
What does this confusion have to do with President Obama, a t-shirt and Psalms 109, you ask? Simply, I think it’s helpful to understand the meaning and implications of scripture before deciding whether or not it has the power to harm our President. As any Bible scholar will tell you, we can’t intelligently discuss or react to specific passages in the Bible if we haven’t read the entire book, have no historical context for the writings, the writers or the politics of the time, and have read none of the large body of theological research regarding the collection of works that comprise the Bible.
This reminds me of a link that my friend Rev. Gaylon McDowell shared yesterday on Facebook. The link led me to the YouTube videos from an insightful lecture by New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman. It’s divided into 10 segments because of the time limits on YouTube, but I’d highly recommend watching all of them. Treat yourself to some jaw-dropping “I didn’t know that!” moments.
Dr. Ehrman is the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which he calls the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. He has written 20 books about the Bible, including New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and JESUS, INTERRUPTED: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible. Dr. Ehrman teaches historical approaches to early Christianity and the New Testament.
On the first day of class a few years ago, he looked out at the 360 students in his lecture hall and asked three questions:
- How many of you would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God? (Voom! The entire roomful of students raised their hands.)
- How many of you have read The DaVinci Code? (Voom! The entire roomful of students raised their hands.)
- How many of you have read the entire Bible? (There was a hand raised, here and there throughout the lecture hall.)
Ehrman looked at them and said, “I’m not telling you that I think that God wrote the Bible. You’re telling me that you think God wrote the Bible. I can see why you might want to read a book by Dan Brown; but if God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to see what He had to say?” he laughed.
And that brings us back to Psalms 109:9-13. Did God say or even inspire those destructive words? Do these verses really pose a threat to our President or his family?
I can’t think of a better time to have a discerning heart than when reading or repeating the Bible. If we put our thinking caps on, we would realize that God wouldn’t give us conflicting directives or portray Himself as bi-polar. For example, an Old Testament scripture about discernment totally contradicts the spirit of Psalms 109: “So God said to him, ‘Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart…’” (1 Kings 3:11-12, NIV)
When we are discerning, we can objectively look at a situation, person or written word and determine whether it aligns with what we believe to be true. When we are discerning, we can more appropriately interpret and react to Bible verses.
For example, does God brutally punish humans, as is indicated in so many Bible passages, or is 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 accurate when it states that God is love? It’s impossible for the answer to be “all of the above” unless we believe that God is bi-polar and not absolute. We must make a choice.
Why? Well, according to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (NIV)
If God is love, is God angry and vindictive? If God is love, does God brutally punish? If God is love, does God harshly judge? Would love destroy every living thing on the planet? Can we believe the Flood story and believe that God is love? Can we believe the Garden of Eden story and believe that God is love? Which do you believe?
Have you tried the “Would Love do that?” challenge when you read the Bible? It’s my litmus test. When I applied it to the vengeful lyrics in Psalms 109, my answer was a resounding, “No, Love would not do that!” That influenced my response to both the t-shirt and the e-mail.
Between you and me: If we believe that God is Love, we really don’t care whether people buy “Pray for Barack, Psalm 109:8” t-shirts and bumper stickers. We don’t even care if they pray the entire mean-spirited chapter. Why? Because they’re spitting in the wind. We know that Love would never respond affirmatively to prayers asking Him to brutalize any of His children.
Needless to say, I didn’t respond to the urgent call to forward those Psalms 109 t-shirt e-mails. In fact, they immediately went in the trash, right behind the e-mails asking me to pray for President Obama’s protection.
Don’t be alarmed. I have a rationale for that, too: Appeals of this nature presume two things: 1) God is not Love and 2) God has such careless disregard for His child Barack Obama that He will only protect him if we submit a formal request.
I am not going to denigrate God by believing that either of these presumptions is true.