Breaking Teeth by Thomas S. Buchanan

Breaking Teeth

“Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For thou dost smite all my enemies on the cheek, thou dost break the teeth of the wicked.”
—Psalm 3:7

My seven-year-old son came into our bedroom late last night because he had a nightmare. Benjamin dreamed that baddies had come into the house and taken his sister and were coming after him and his brother. Such dreams can be terrifying, especially to one so young. But he was easily comforted this time and sent back to bed.

Earlier that day, as we said our morning prayers together, Ben had made an interesting comment. Recently we have been learning the three psalms that St. Benedict said should be prayed every morning: Psalm 3 (“O Lord, how many are my foes! . . .”), Psalm 51 (“Have mercy on me, O God. . . .”), and Psalm 95 (“O come let us sing to the Lord. . . .”). Of these, Ben said that his favorite was Psalm 3.

This psalm is a prayer for protection for one who feels small and outnumbered, for “many are rising against me.” But, the psalmist writes, “thou, O Lord, art a shield about me” who will “smite all my enemies on the cheek” and will “break the teeth of the wicked” so that “I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me.”

Many modern scholars and theologians have difficulty with the imprecatory psalms: those psalms that speak of God as one who does harm to his enemies. Such people cannot fathom a God who suggests anything but unconditional love to all of his creation. No doubt, the Jesus Seminar intelligentsia would consider only the last part of the last verse of Psalm 3 to be authentic: “thy blessing be upon thy people.” (That is, if they bothered to read the Old Testament.) As opposed to curses, only blessings are acceptable to those who have no understanding of sin or hell.

However, the true God both blesses his people and strikes his enemies on the cheek. This is the God my son admires. He loves him not just because he is good, but also because he is just and offers justice in a way my son knows he cannot. He knows that it is not his duty to strike people upon the cheek (although he does like the story of St. Nicholas slapping the heretic Arius, which gives him an interesting perspective of Santa Claus, but that is another matter). He knows that justice should come from God, and not from himself.

And he also knows that he is small and unable to protect himself from the dark powers of the world, as he sees in his worst dreams. Furthermore, when pressed, he will say that the teeth that are broken are those of the demons. He has never heard of God breaking people’s teeth, but he is comforted to know that teeth-breaking is not outside God’s line of work if the task calls for it.

For nearly 1,500 years, Christians who have followed the Rule of St. Benedict have begun every day praying, “I wake again, for the Lord sustains me,” along with the rest of Psalm 3. As St. Benedict’s is the most widely used rule of prayer, that adds up to a lot of prayers involving maxillofacial injuries. Unfortunately, St. Benedict’s great Rule has fallen onto hard times, and I imagine the numbers who pray these psalms daily are far fewer than they once were. But for one little boy I know, a morning prayer involving the breaking of the teeth of the wicked makes for a comforting way to start the day. Some things are better understood by seven-year-olds than by professional theologians.

Thomas S. Buchanan is the George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. He has studied at UCSD, Northwestern University, and MIT, and has held visiting professorships at the University of Western Australia and the University of Aix-Marseille. He has served as department chairman, deputy dean, and institute director, president of the American Society of Biomechanics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Applied Biomechanics. He is on the Board of Trustees of Saint Katherine College, the editorial board of Touchstone, and the board of The Fellowship of St. James.

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