Understanding Violence in Old Testament - Psalm 139

Monday, August 23, 2010

Psalm 139 is one of the most beloved of the psalms. It beautifully express God’s nearness:

“You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.’ (Ps 139:13-14)

Yet beginning at verse 19 there is a clear shift both thematically and emotionally. What begins as a psalm of intimacy and closeness to God suddenly shifts into a tirade of hatred:

“If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!... I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (Ps 139:19, 22)

The raw hatred expressed here is disturbing, especially if we see this psalm as a model of prayer. As Christians we know it is wrong to pray for the death of our enemies and cultivate “complete hatred” (v 22). So how can we understand this psalm? Viewing this from the perspective of a screenwriter or actor, one would need to immediately ask what the emotional motivation was that triggered this shift? What breaks the psalmist out of the gentle rhapsody of feeling sheltered and initiate with God, into his sudden outburst of hatred? What is the personal back-story that accounts for this emotional and thematic shift in the narrative?

One clue is that we see that the psalmist's hatred is directed against “men of blood” (v 19), that is, against men of violence whom the psalmist wants to be “kept far away from.” When he wishes that God would “kill the wicked” therefore, this is clearly not meant in the context of Psalm 51 where David confesses his sins. In fact, the Hebrew word rasa translated as “wicked” is never used reflexively in the psalms to refer one’s self, but always refers to the other, to "them." This Hebrew word rasa ("wicked") is also frequently coupled with violence in the psalms:

“The Lord... hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Ps 11:15)

“...the wicked who do me violence, my deadly enemies who surround me” (Ps 17:9)

“Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from violent men (Ps 140:5)

So the word rasa is used very much in the same way as we use the term “bad” people in the context of terrorists and child abductors. As with those emotionally charged themes, here too there is a history of hurt behind the psalmist’s words. Likely they or someone they love were the victim of violence, and now they are lashing out in their hurt. A friend of mine had a girl from Israel live with her family as an exchange student. This girl had seen Palestinians inflicting violence on little children, and one day confessed to my friend through tears “I hate them! I want them to suffer, I want their children to suffer like ours have! I know that’s wrong, but I don’t know how to stop. I just hate them so much.” If we read this psalm in that context, of emotional pain and trauma then the abrupt shift makes sense. It also shed light on the closing two verses:

23 Search me God and know my-heart. Examine me and know my troubled thoughts. 24 See if the way of pain is in me, and lead me in way eternal.”

Verse 23 is an echo of the opening line of this psalm “God, you search and know me,” (v 1) which launches the psalmist into the beautiful description of god’s intimate knowledge of our inmost being. Here he adds “...and know my troubled thoughts” (v 23). This is frequently translated as “anxious thoughts” and as a result I, and many others, have read this in the context of assurance from doubt, as a verse of comfort when I doubt God’s love for me. I still think this is a perfectly legitimate way to read this—a psalm can take on new meaning as the Spirit uses it to speak into the context of our lives—but here I am convinced that in the original context the “troubled heart” that the psalmist speaks of is the one that caused him in pain and anger to be pulled out of worship and into his outburst of hatred.

His thoughts of worship and intimacy are troubled, disturbed, interrupted, by violence. This takes us into the next line “See if the way of pain is in me” (v 24). The Hebrew word here is otsev meaning pain or suffering, but many translations have instead “the way of wickedness” (NRSV) or “offensive way” (NIV) which both lose the direct emotional connection this term has to the very real hurt expressed in this psalm. Here is someone whose heart is "troubled" by violence, they are hurting, and because of this they lash out in anger. They are stuck in the “way of pain,” the way of hurting and being hurt, are praying that they would be brought out of this road of hurt, and instead be placed on “the eternal way” which is not characterized by hurt and violence, but by life.

Most psalms begin with a lament, and end in praise. Here the order is reversed: It begins in praise, and ends in anguish, hatred, and pain. So we need to look back to vv 1-18 to find the answer to the psalmist's troubled angry heart at the end. The message of the psalm, if we look back to these beautiful opening lines, is that God knows our troubled hearts, God knows our pain, and even our darkness, even when we “make our bed in hell” (v 8), God can “make that darkness into light” (v 12). Even our hatred and pain can be transformed and redeemed by the God who knows us. God meets us there in our darkness and there in that embrace can turn that darkness into light.

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