“How Long?”: Imprecation, Indignation, and the Language of the Oppressed

Photo Credit: ABC News
Photo Credit: ABC News

“…they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”

-Revelation 6:10

The Bible is a book full of uncomfortable language. In it, we find prayers for God to break the teeth of our enemies and pour out anger over them. There’s talk of “evildoers” being thrown into a furnace of fire.

These are the portions of scripture we love to gloss over or ignore in our preaching. They certainly don’t invoke images of hands joined in unity, singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire. They’re anything but romantic and tidy. They’re disturbing. They’re uncomfortable. They’re downright awful.

We’re tempted to explain them away, to suggest why the writers or redactors probably didn’t really mean them.

Except they did. They absolutely said what they meant and meant what they said.

How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

-Psalm 13:2

These imprecations (as they have been called) are the language of the oppressed. They are cries for justice. They’re cries for vindication. They’re promises of justice and vindication for those who have been targeted, attacked, and abused. Any reading of the text that fails to acknowledge this is naïve and does violence to not only the text, but to the people to whom it was written — to whom violence has already been done.

The spirit of Advent can in fact be summed up by the cry “Kumbaya,” which is an old Gullah saying, meaning “come by here.” These scriptural imprecations are indeed calls for God Most High to “come by here.” Because if God comes by here, perhaps we can be vindicated. If God comes by here, my enemies have to retreat. If God comes by here, then darkness must flee. If God comes by here, then we can finally breathe.

We sit today in the darkness wrought by yet another grand jury’s failure to indict an officer of the law in the killing of an unarmed man. As Eric Garner felt in his final moments of life, we, too, feel suffocated. We feel suffocated by the fact that his killer — who had been sued twice for excessive force, but has managed to stay employed by NYPD — will not have to answer for Garner’s death. We feel suffocated because there is seemingly little to no accountability for the people we are supposed to trust to protect us. We feel suffocated because this incident is not isolated, but is indicative of the widespread brokenness of our justice system.

And suddenly, those passages we often skip because they make us uncomfortable now make sense. They are real. We get them. We may even pray them because we understand that God will always side with the downtrodden, which is bad news only to the oppressor.

No one need be uncomfortable about the cries of the oppressed for justice — except for the unjust, of course. I believe if we have a problem with the Bible’s language of imprecation, it might be because the boot on the neck of the speaker is on our own foot.

Even still, God is patient, not out of indifference, but because all of us need to be redeemed from these systems that oppress and suffocate. There is yet opportunity for all of us to get on the right side of the text and of history. My Advent prayer is that we take advantage of such grace. Kumbaya.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

-2 Peter 3:9