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A Bonhoeffer Sermon
Translated By Daniel Bloesch
Edited By F. Burton Nelson
Eberhard Bethge, universally acknowledged as the foremost biographer and commentator on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has called attention to the importance of preaching in evaluating Bonhoeffer's life and work. "Preaching was the great event in his life; the hard theologizing and all the critical love of his church were all for its sake, for in it the message of Christ, the bringer of peace, was proclaimed. To Bonhoeffer nothing in his calling competed in importance with preaching" (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp. 174-5). But many of Bonhoeffer's sermons are still not available in English translation. His Finkenwalde lectures on preaching have only recently been translated (Worldly Preaching, by Clyde E. Fant, New York: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1975). It is consequently no surprise that Bonhoeffer is known more as theologian, teacher, resister, and martyr, than as preacher.
Three brief comments may help orient readers to this newly translated "Sermon on a Psalm of Vengeance," four and one-half decades after its writing. First, the year 1937 was the fourth year into the Hitler era and marked a stormy road for the Confessing Church. In February of that year, the Ministry of the Interior issued an order which prohibited pulpit announcements concerning persons who were leaving the church. Also there was an attempt to prohibit the practice of using intercessory lists in the churches. In June, the same government department sought to prohibit the taking of collections during Confessing Church services. Several pastors were arrested in Berlin, including Martin Niemoller on July 1. Bonhoeffer was in Pastor Niemöller's house at the time of the arrest, together with Franz Hildebrandt, Eugen Rose, and Eberhard Bethge. The sermon's reference at the outset to "the church's distress" is linked, therefore, to an increasing wave of harassment, persecution, and imprisonments under the relentless hand of the Gestapo. It was written just ten days after the arrest.
Second, the Book of Psalms constituted for Dietrich Bonhoeffer a rich treasury of the church's inheritance. He referred to the Psalter as "The Prayer Book of the Bible" in a 1940 meditation (translated by
Daniel Bloesch is the minister of the Community Church, Round Lake, Illinois. F. Burton Nelson is Professor of Theology and Ethics, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. This Bonhoeffer sermon, previously unavailable in English, will be of wide interest not only to Bonhoeffer students but to preachers and biblical interpreters. Both translator and editor have supervised seminars here and in Germany dealing with the continuing interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis, April 9, 1945. In the style of the time, the masculinist language has been retained.
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James Burtness; published by Augsburg Press, 1970). In the Finkenwalde seminary community of which Bonhoeffer was the spiritual leader, every day began with readings from the Psalms. All of the one hundred fifty Psalms were grist for the mill of daily devotion, including the difficult imprecatory Psalms. Bonhoeffer insisted that one should not hurry by the passages of wrath and vengeance simply because they were jarring and bloody.
Third, for Bonhoeffer, the Psalms, and also the entire Old Testament, were the "Book of Christ." The Old Testament should therefore be read in the light of both the Incarnation and the Cross. A scholarly exposition of this vantage point has been offered recently by Martin Kuske of East Germany, The Old Testament as the Book of Christ: An Appraisal of Bonhoeffer's Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976). Kuske argues that Bonhoeffer does not reject the Psalms of vengeance as being in opposition to New Testament morality, or that they represent an early religious stage. The vengeance Psalms are "fulfilled in the crucified Lord."
From Bonhoeffer's perspective, the first concern in considering the Psalms is not to ask what they have to do with us, "but what they have to do with Jesus Christ."
SERMON ON A PSALM OF VENGEANCE
BY DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
From Gesammelte Schriften, Band IV, pp. 413-422, "Predigt über einen Rachepsalm," July 11, 1937.
1.Do you indeed speak righteousness, Oyou judges, do you judge the children of men fairly?
2.No, at heart you work iniquity; you deal out the violence of your hands in the land,
3.The godless are perverse from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.
4.Their poison is like a serpent's venom, like a deaf adder that stops its ear,
5.So that it does not hear the voice of charmers charming ever so skillfully.
6.O God, break the teeth in their mouths; shatter the fangs of the young lions, OGod!
7.Let them melt away like water that runs continuously. As he aims his arrows, let those be as split apart.
8.Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime, like an untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9.Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away.
10.The righteous will ignore when he sees such vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked,
11.Men will say, "Surely there is a reward for the righteous; there is truly a God who judges on earth."
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Is this frightful Psalm of vengeance our prayer? Are we actually allowed to pray in such a manner? At first the answer to this question is totally clear, "No, we are certainly not permitted to pray like that. Indeed, we have to shoulder much of the blame for the hostility we encounter and which gets us into trouble. We have to confess that it is God's righteous punishment which strikes and humbles us sinful men." Even in these times of the church's distress we are compelled to recognize that God himself in his anger has raised his hand against us to afflict us with our own sin, all our spiritual indolence, our open or inward disobedience, the profound lack of discipline in our everyday lives under his word. Or would we want to deny that each personal sin, even the most hidden, must bring down God's wrath, call down God's revenge on our enemies without this revenge hitting us even harder? No, we are not able to pray this Psalm. Not because we would be too good for it (what a superficial thought, what inconceivable arrogance!), but because we are too sinful, too evil for it.
Only he who is totally without sin can pray like that. This Psalm of vengeance is the prayer of the innocent. "For the chief musician; to the tune, Do not Destroy, by David, a refuge Psalm." It is David who prays this Psalm. David himself is not innocent. But it pleased God to prepare for himself in David the one who will be called the Son of David, Jesus Christ. The reason David must not lose his life is because the Christ is to come from him. David could never have prayed for himself against his enemies in order to preserve his own life. We know that David humbly endured all personal abuse. But Christ, and therefore the church of God, is in David. Thus his enemies are the enemies of Jesus Christ and his holy church. For that reason Christ himself is praying this Psalm in David-and with Christ the universal holy church. No, we sinners are not praying this song of vengeance; innocence itself is praying it. The innocence of Christ steps before the world and accuses it. We do not accuse it, Christ does.
When Christ takes action against sin, aren't we ourselves right in the midst of the accused as well?
"Do you indeed speak righteousness, O you judges, do you judge the children of men fairly?" It is an evil time when the world lets injustice happen silently, when the oppression of the poor and the wretched cries out to heaven in a loud voice and the judges and rulers of the earth keep silent about it, when the persecuted church calls to God for help in the hour of dire distress and exhorts men to do justice, and yet no mouth on earth is opened to bring justice. "Do you indeed speak righteousness, O you judges, do you judge the children of men? Must children of men suffer injustice? Must that always be forgotten in such times? Do you hear it? Children of men who are creatures of God like you, who feel pain and misery like you, you who do violence to them; who have their happiness and hopes like you; who feel their honor and their shame like you; children of men who are sinners like you and need God's mercy like you; your brothers! Are you mute?" Oh, no, they are not mute, their
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voice is heard on earth. But it is an unmerciful, a partisan word they speak. It judges not by what is right, but by a person's standing.
"No, at heart you work iniquity, you deal out the violence of your hands in the land." When the mouths of the world's rulers remain silent about injustice, their hands invariably commit acts of violence. This language of human hands where no justice exists is terrible. It is there that the distress and pain of the body originates. It is there that the persecuted, captive, beaten church longs for deliverance from this body. Let me fall into God's hands, but not into the hands of men! Do we still hear it? Christ is speaking here! He experienced the unrighteous judgment, he fell into the hands of men. Innocence is accusing the unrighteous world. However, only God's righteous wrath befalls us sinners. But it can't be any other way.
It is not just a question here of particular transgressions which occur everywhere. No, here the secret of godlessness itself is unveiled. "The godless are perverse from the womb, they go astray from birth, speaking lies." Only perfect innocence looks into this abyss of evil. We would all too gladly like to believe at least something could be changed, improved here, and we try in innumerable ways to achieve something here or there. When serious wrong is done again and again, it makes us very uneasy, repeatedly dismays us and fills us with indignation. Innocence alone knows that everything has to happen here just as it does happen. It knows of the dark mystery that Satan has already seized his own in their mothers' wombs and is now driving them frantically on. Now they have to do his work. The world continues to be the world, Satan continues to be Satan. At the same time, innocence gains complete peace of mind in this abyss of knowledge. It has to be so, and it does not change.
Their poison is like a serpent's venom, like a deaf adder that stops its ear so that it does not hear the voice of the charmers charming ever so skillfully." The Orient is full of magicians who subdue snakes with their voices so that they have to obey. A deaf snake, however, doesn't hear this voice and goes after the magician. The godless are like such deaf snakes. They are not able to hear the voice of the snake charmer even though he is able to charm snakes quite skillfully. God himself is the snake charmer who skillfully charms snakes. He charms and captivates our hearts with his word of grace. He attracts us with the sweet words of his love. He persuades us and subdues our hearts so that we are compelled to listen to him as if spellbound and be obedient to him. Yet the great mystery remains-there are some who hear and some who have deaf ears and stop up their ears so that they are not able to hear. Indeed, we know of ourselves that there are times when our ears are deaf. Those are the times we harden our hearts against God's will in willful disobedience and heap sin upon sin until we are finally no longer able to hear. At that point Satan has taken possession of us. So Satan hardens the hearts of those who have to serve him in his struggle against God's kingdom and Word. They are no longer able to hear or obey. However, because their ears are deaf to the grace of God, their mouths
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are also mute to the righteousness of God. They are enemies of God and his church. David, Christ, and the church of God recognize them as such.
This realization leads us into prayer. When this is the enemy, then no human skill or ingenuity can help bring about peace. Then no human strength can help overcome these enemies. God's name must be called. And now those horrible prayer requests we dread begin in our Psalm. When we read these words, we can only repeat them with trembling and deep inner resistance. God is called upon to take revenge on enemies. "O God, break the teeth in their mouths. Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!" Above all let us learn here that faced with the enemies of God and his church all we can do is pray. Our own courage-no matter how great it may be-all our bravery is bound to snap in the presence of this enemy. Here we are dealing with Satan's attack. Here the one who alone has power over Satan, God himself, must take the initiative.
It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God's hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one's own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God's cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate" (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: "Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth." That means, "God, it is your cause about to suffer damage here, your honor is being violated. God, step in now and destroy your enemy, exercise your power, let your righteous anger be aroused." God does not let himself be mocked. He will sit in judgment on his enemies. And whether we are taken aback by the dreadful desire of the Psalm or not, God's power will be even more dreadful for the person it strikes. And if we are frightened by human fists, how much more must we be frightened by God's fist crushing the godless for the sake of his kingdom, his name, his honor? The Lord of Creation is establishing his Kingdom. Vengeance on his enemies is his.
Now David breaks out in immeasurable jubilation. He is fully certain that his prayer will be heard. In images following in rapid succession he already sees the downfall of the godless in the midst of strife, anguish, and suffering. "Let them melt away like water that runs continuously." They will meet their end quickly and suddenly. They will no longer be there just as water quickly runs off. "As he aims his arrows, let those be
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as split apart"-the deadly arrows are still whizzing by, but they can no longer do any damage, they are powerless. "Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime." How full of contempt David speaks of his enemies here! God will crush the powerful and great people of this earth just as one crushes a snail underfoot. "Like an untimely birth that never sees the sun." They will be finished so quickly that they will remain in darkness and oblivion and no one will ever ask about them. "Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!" God's wrath will not let his enemies' plans mature. The godless are prematurely torn away-by force. They don't finish anything, that is God's revenge. It will come quickly, more quickly than we suspected.
"The righteous will rejoice when he sees such vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked." Once again we shudder at this Psalm. Isn't this ending really quite impossible for us to pray as Christians? Brothers and sisters, if we are still evasive there, we have understood nothing of it at all. Nothing less than God and his righteousness is at stake here. The godless must die so that God's justice may be triumphant. Human friendship and human sympathy are no longer at issue here. The only thing that matters is that God wins the victory in the end. Whoever recoils from this expression of joy at God's revenge and the blood of the godless still doesn't know what happened on the Cross of Christ. God's righteous vengeance on the godless one has already come over us. The blood of the godless one has already flowed. God's death. sentence on the wicked is pronounced. God's justice is fulfilled. That has taken place in the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ died the death of the ungodly, struck down by God's wrath and vengeance. His blood is the blood God's justice demanded for the transgression of his commandments. God's vengeance has been carried out right here on earth, more terribly than the psalmist himself knows. Christ, the innocent one, died the death of a sinner so that we do not have to die. Now we stand as sinners at the foot of his cross and now a puzzle difficult to understand is solved: Jesus Christ, the innocent one, prays as God's vengeance on the godless is fulfilled, he prays as our Psalm is fulfilled: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:24). The one who bore the vengeance, he alone has set us free from God's wrath and revenge; he has brought forgiveness to his enemies and no one before him was allowed to pray like that. He alone is allowed to. If we look at him, the crucified, we recognize God's true and living anger at us, godless, and at the same moment we sense our liberation from this anger, and we hear "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
"The righteous will rejoice when he sees such vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked." Is not that true delight in God? Is not that the joy of the righteous at the triumph of God's justice on the Cross, joy at Christ's victory? God's vengeance has died and the blood of the godless one in whom we bathe ourselves gives us a share in
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God's victory; the blood of the godless one has become our redemption, it cleanses us of all our sin. That is the miracle.
Thus the image of the blood-stained Savior emerges from the midst of this Psalm, the Savior who died for the godless, struck down by God's revenge, for our salvation. No one is excluded here. Christ bore all of God's vengeance for everyone. God's wrath and vengeance will no longer rest on anyone who comes to him, and stays on his side. They are under the protection of Christ's righteousness, whoever they may be. Yet whoever does not want to come, whoever does not want to prostrate himself at the foot of Christ's Cross as a godless sinner, whoever defies the Cross of Christ, God's wrathful judgment will come over himGod's vengeance as it came over Christ, however not for life, but for eternal death.
"Men will say, 'Surely there is a reward for the righteous.'" Not happiness or power or honor in this world is the fruit of the righteous. It is nothing other than the fellowship of Christ's Cross, the redemption from God's wrath. "There is truly a God who judges on earth." Where is God's judgment on the godless of this world? Not in visible misfortune, failure, or disgrace in the eyes of this world, but solely in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Isn't that enough for us? Don't we see all the enemies of God already fallen and condemned in this Cross? What is the good of all our anxiety which wants to see even more than this judgment of God? For that reason, when we begin to doubt God's justice on earth, let us look to the Cross of Christ-here is judgment, here is free pardon.
Today the crucified One in this love is still concealing from us what we will see one day at the Last Judgment, the salvation of the just and the damnation of the godless. We couldn't bear it on this earth. But we may be certain that everything will serve to increase the joy of the righteous. On that day, the victory and triumph of Christ will be made known in salvation and judgment. Until that day, however, Satan will continue to incite the enemies of Christ and his church to commit acts of injustice and violence and tell lies. In the middle of this raging battle, Christ vicariously prays this Psalm for us. He accuses the godless, he calls down God's vengeance and justice on them and gives himself up for the benefit of all the ungodly with his innocent suffering on the Cross.
And now we pray this song with the psalmist, in humble gratitude that we have been granted deliverance from wrath through the Cross of Christ. We pray in fervent supplication that God may bring all our enemies under the Cross of Christ and grant them mercy. We pray with burning desire that the day may soon come when Christ will visibly triumph over all his enemies and establish his Kingdom. We can learn to pray the Psalm in this way. Amen.