What are we to make of the violent imprecatory Psalms? One of the first that comes to mind here is the chilling final verse of Psalm 137, "Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." When we think of praying through the Psalms it's hard to imagine praying that, and yet such sentiment is not at all uncommon in the Psalter. Prayers expressing hatred and death wishes are a prevalent and major theme of the Psalms.
A frequent response is to stress that this is the cry of a person in pain, expressing their raw human grief and anger. Indeed, there is clearly some truth in this. For example Psalm 137 quoted above begins with words of grief, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept." Just as the Psalms frequently express doubt, they likewise express uncensored anger that can be understood as a very natural human response. We might even say that, like Job, the Psalms express a healthy spirituality in the sense that they demonstrate that it is okay for us to express our real feelings of doubt, grief, anger and pain.
As true as all of this is, it is not the whole story. It is one thing to honestly express human emotions. It is another to uphold these as "blessed" and thus to imply that such declarations of hate and death have God's sanction. Yet this is exactly what Psalm 137 declares. While Jesus says "blessed are the peacemakers" Psalm 137 says in contrast "blessed are those who smash in the heads of toddlers." Rather obviously we have here two diametrically opposed understandings of what God blesses.
In Psalm 139, after a breathtaking display of intimacy including such memorable lines as "You knit me together in my mother's womb" and "before a word is on my tongue you know it completely" David holds up his hatred to God, not as an expression of human weakness, but as a sign of his virtue and faithfulness,
"Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Ps 139:21-24)
When Jesus said "you have heard it said 'love your neighbor but hate your enemy..." his audience could very well have thought of this very Psalm which upholds hated of enemies as a virtue. Yet we all know how the words of Jesus continue "...but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." In contrast what we find throughout the Psalms are prayers against persecuters, praying for their death and destruction, never praying for them.
We find prayers that the psalmist's enemies would be killed...
"Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead" (Ps 55:15)
that they would go to hell...
"Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation.
May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous" (Ps 69:27-28)
and that his enemy's wife and children would suffer, too...
"May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.” (Ps 109:9-12)
Not exactly "Jesus loves the little children" material.
As Christians we need to read the Psalms, and indeed all of Scripture, in the light of Christ, and it is clear that much of what the Psalms uphold as virtuous and good simply does not line up with Jesus. In fact, as we've seen above, much of it directly contradicts Jesus. We find here two diametrically opposed understandings of God's will. In such cases we need to apply the words of Jesus, "You have heard it said... but I say to you."
It is not healthy to meditate on and cultivate hate as a religious virtue. So we surely cannot join David in his prayers of violence and cursing. When we read the Psalms we instead need to take a step back, and read them in the same way that we might read Job when he expresses his unbridled anger at God. When Job accuses God of wronging him, "God has turned me over to the ungodly … He has made me his target … God has wronged me" (Job 16:11-12; 19:6) we do not read this as a true statement of God's character. Likewise, when the Psalmist cries out in hatred, calling for vengeance and death, cursing his enemies, we need to clearly recognize that this is not a prayer that we would ever have heard on Jesus' lips who instead prayed, "Forgive them Father, they don't understand what they are doing."
Despite David's belief that his hatred was pure and virtuous, and that there was "nothing offensive" in his heart, it's easy to see that his prayer clearly does not reflect God's heart as revealed in Jesus who demonstrated his love for us "While we were yet sinners ... while we God's enemies
" (Rom 5:9-10). When the Psalms dehumanize others as "wicked" and call for their judgment and death this does not reflect God's will. When conservative commentators stress that these curses reflect God's righteous judgment, as they typically do, they reveal that they have missed the entire point of the gospel. In contrast, Paul stresses that we are all
sinners in need of mercy. We all have been hurt, and we all hurt others. So we need to find ways to mend that hurt, we need to be peacemakers. This is what is truly blessed.
If we can read the Psalms as a raw and uncensored look at the human heart, it can help us to face the pain and dark feelings we have. However, at the same time we need to be clear that such expression of hate and calls for violence do not reflect God's will revealed in Jesus. This is a point that is seldom made, and frankly it needs to be made more often. Our tendency instead is to tiptoe around the Psalms, never daring to criticize them.
We need to have the courage to face them honestly, with the same honesty that they themselves exhibit. Again, there us a huge difference
between a healthy expression of emotion on the one hand, and affirming,
endorsing and cultivating hate and death wishes as a virtue on the other
(including wishing death on someone's kids as Psalm 137 does!). So if
we indeed respect honesty, let's read
these Psalms with honesty,
and have the courage to say that while we can sympathize with the
pain the Psalmist must have been going through, it certainly is not
"blessed" to murder infants.
What the Psalms reveal is both the beauty and ugliness of our human hearts. If we can learn to read them in this way, honestly facing the Psalms, and honestly facing ourselves, even in our darkest places, then we can make space for God's light to meet us there in the dark.
Labels: Bible, violence