Some of the psalms come off sounding very self-righteous. For instance, look at Psalm 69, in which the psalmist is crying out against the people who are persecuting him. For the first 25 verses he asks God to save him from impending doom, which is certainly understandable. But beginning in verse 26 he prays for revenge: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.” And that verse is tame compared to what follows.
Another example is Psalm 58, which is an option for reading during Morning Prayer today, but only an
Of course, revenge is a real human desire. Those who feel wronged want to get back at those who have hurt them. If they feel powerless, they may implore God to do the deed. I remember the time my car was broken into during church. When we came out to the parking lot and found the shattered glass and a big hole where the stereo had been, one friend burst out in frustration, “They broke into your car during church?! Ooh …. God’s gonna get them!”
It’s a feeling I understand, but it’s not something I believe. God doesn’t get back at those who do evil, at least not in any way that would satisfy our rage. The good go on being persecuted, and the evil go on succeeding in their schemes. God doesn’t avenge; God redeems. This is my theology on the matter, anyway.
Yet the psalms—and much of the Bible, for that matter—are full of times when God exacts revenge on behalf of the people. Consider the second book of Kings, in which King Jehu wipes out all the descendants of the former King Ahab. It’s bloody, royal intrigue worthy of an HBO series: the heads of Ahab’s 70 children stacked up outside the city gate, and all the worshippers of Baal gathered into one place on false pretenses so they can be massacred in one fell swoop. It is tribal terrorism. Yet God is portrayed as being in favor of it, merely because it is instigated by those who claim to be on God’s side.
So what are our options for understanding the violent psalms and stories of the Bible? Well, one option might be to say, “Indeed, God is a violent God, and God has many enemies, and I am not one of them. In due time, God will wreak vengeance on my enemies, and I’ll enjoy it to the fullest.” But this doesn’t square at all with the example of Jesus, or for that matter, many passages in the Old Testament that tout God’s gentleness and mercy. Joshua may say to the Israelites at one point, “God will not forgive your sins,” but most of the Hebrew Scriptures speak to the contrary. To claim God as a God of vengeance (who is conveniently on our side) is to ignore the overall thrust of salvation history. It is also to wrap ourselves in a thick cloak of self-righteousness that blinds us to our own sins.
Another way to understand the violent psalms is to say, “It’s just how people thought back then; it’s of no use to us now.” We could stop reading these portions, decreeing them irrelevant to our faith. But most Christians balk at this suggestion. It’s a little too easy, isn’t it? And yet it’s difficult: do we each get to decide what is kept and what is thrown out? That’s where American individualism gets out of control.
The answer could be a complicated and confusing mix of both these options. And that’s entirely possible: we’ll never fully understand God’s will, but I’m comfortable with God getting angry about injustice. I’m also comfortable saying, “Not all Scripture is created equal.” Some parts of it are more relevant to us today than other parts. Other parts I have found to be pretty useless—at least, so far.
But there’s one more important factor: I am not everybody. I am a 21st-century American. I have led a pretty easy life. Disaster could strike at any time, but it hasn’t struck me yet. I don’t consider this to be any particular blessing, as if those who led a difficult or violent life were cursed. It’s just my context. I can’t possibly understand everything. Neither can any of us.
Furthermore, the Bible is not just a theology textbook—or a history textbook—or a book of fables. It is all of these things and more. The Bible can connect us with our deepest emotions, and the psalms are especially good at doing this. We Westerners are notoriously out of touch with our feelings. Violent emotions may offend or frighten us, as if we were immune to the very human desire for revenge. The psalms can help us delve into these feelings and own them, so that we can decide what to do with them.
The psalms can also put us in touch with feelings we don’t share with others. I don’t want God to break the teeth of the wicked; I want God to heal them and show them a better way. But through the psalms, I can pray for those who do harbor vengeful desires, bringing them before God and holding them in God’s presence. And, again, I can check to make sure I’m not just fooling myself when I say I don’t share these emotions.
When I keep these things in mind, I find it easier to read—and, indeed, to pray—the psalms.