How should we read the psalms of conflict?

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible, or a theme or section of Scripture, and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

Here I explore how we should read the Psalms, particularly those expressing conflict and anger towards the psalmist’s opponents.

The Psalms have an unusual place in Christian devotion. On the one hand, they have long been the staple of Christian devotional reading of Scripture; in my tradition (the Church of England) they are read daily, and have a central place in formal liturgy. Alongside that, many Christians today, of every tradition, treasure them as a spiritual resource, with their honesty, tenderness, and expression of longing for God. They are one of the most common inspirations for Christian hymnody, and include favourite passages (Pss 23, 42, 121) to which people return again and again. 

On the other hand, they are full of conflict, even to the point of aggression. At times, the psalmist has been led astray by his own failings (Ps 51); at other times there is an almost inexplicable sense of isolation and distance from God (Ps 13); yet very often, the challenges the psalmist faces are caused by opposition from a human adversary. And it is the psalmist’s response to his adversaries which can give us pause. 

As we read these difficult texts, we need to realise some important truths about them. 

Our words to God

First, the strong reaction of the psalmist to being opposed, oppressed, and treated unjustly are precisely what makes the psalms appealing to us. We, too, feel anger, grief, and frustration when we have been treated unjustly and are powerless to do anything about it. We are accustomed to thinking about Scripture as God’s word to us—but suddenly we find, in the Psalms, that Scripture provides us with our words to God. We sit where the psalmist sits, we speak the words the psalmist speaks, and we find a way of articulating our most visceral emotions. 

And this brings home a vital truth to us: God does not sit, unmoved and unmovable, so far above the realities of human life that he cannot face our anger and despair. The repeated assurance is that he hears our cry, and the psalms give voice to the cry that we utter. How does God respond to the plight of the refugee, the victim of violence, and those caught up in the tragedy of war? The psalmist points tells us that he hears, and will answer. 

Those of us who sit in the comfort of Western prosperity feel awkward about the rawness of some psalms. But they remind us that God does not need our situations to be neat, tidy and ethically resolved before he will engage and will act. 

The God of justice

Secondly, the fact that the psalmist appeals to God is key. There are texts (like Ps 18) in which the psalmist is the one who inflicts defeat on his enemies, but even here he is completely dependent on God. More often, the appeal is made on the basis of God’s own power and commitment to justice—it is God, and not to our own resources, that the psalmist looks. The psalms of conflict do not invite us to seek vengeance for ourselves, but to trust in God alone for our vindication.

This in turn raises a question—not so much, ‘Is God on my side?’ as ‘Am I on God’s side?’ In Ps 7, the psalmist’s call on God to defeat his enemies and vindicate him sits alongside a willingness to be judged by the same standard that he is applying to others: ‘If I have done wrong…then let my enemies capture me…’ (verses 3 to 5). 

We now begin to realise the bigger picture. The conflict the psalmist describes is not mere personal animosity, but has an irreducible spiritual dimension to it. If the psalmist is seeking to walk faithfully with God, and if he then faces opposition, the root of this is opposition to God and his ways. It is therefore to God and his power that we must appeal.

The cry of the sinner

But the line between good and evil, between faithfulness to God and rebellion against God, does not follow a neat path between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead, it is a fault line that runs through each one of us. Alongside the psalms of ‘righteous indignation’, where the psalmist is confident that he has done nothing wrong, sit the psalms of confession and repentance, Ps 51 being the best example. We must read all these together, not in isolation from one another. 

So the psalms of conflict and vengeance come from imperfect people; as with other parts of the Old Testament, they offer us human responses to the challenges of life, but are not necessarily perfect role models. For that, we need to turn to the one who was accused but did not answer back, who was beaten and did not resist, who was unjustly executed yet prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies.  

We must not detach the different psalms from one another—yet neither must we detach them from the one who continues to plead our cause before God, who healed both our wounds and our sin in his cross and resurrection.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

25 thoughts on “How should we read the psalms of conflict?”

  1. Thank you Ian
    I like the unvarnished honesty of the Psalms. Two thirds of them are laments and distinctly more honest than some of the prayer I sometimes hear around me. I find that honesty encouraging against (sometimes) a background noise of simplistic piety. Non of the pain dilutes my trust in God… the open sharing of “how I feel” sometimes simply finds an answer of “I love you, it will be OK” speaking to my inner self.

    Perhaps one area of difficulty is sometimes distinguishing between the voice of the psalmist and the voice of God… where the line is between human calling and divine answering…

    Otherwise I heard someone say the other day that Psalm 91 was “all about Jesus”.. I’d hold that it clearly relates to Jesus… but “all about Jesus”, really?

    • Exactly Ian (Hobbs)! And when it is said it’s “all about Jesus”, who/what is really meant is the “Jesus” excluded from , for example, Matthew 23 or 25, but then “remodelled” according to preconditioned needs and longings. -witness the nature of some of the approaches in the preceding debates on issues pertaining to the current state of the C of E. All too often, the result is the “recreation” of the Son of God in the image and likeness of contemporary humanity.

  2. During times when I arrived in a new area and was looking for a church fellowship, I found a very good acid test of whether a church was true or false was how they used the Psalms in their worship, whether or not it was honest.

    For example, one church I attended invited us to sing a song based on Psalm 95 verses 1 – 7 (the ‘nice’ part of the psalm) while omitting any mention of verses 8 – 11 (‘Today, if only you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, ……. So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”). Stopping it abruptly at verse 7, without any hint of the darker part which put these verses into context, was a piece of blatant dishonesty – which told me everything I needed to know about the church. Needless to say, I didn’t waste any more time with it and never darkened its doors again.

    In other places, I also saw this with the `Psalms of conflict’ which often contain some ‘nice’ verse which the song writers think is OK to take as a ‘standalone’ without any hint of the darker context. When this is what they do for music, it is usually a very good indicator of their basic theology – and a very good idea to run a mile.

      • Origen – you make the point beautifully. If you don’t like the last line of the psalm, then you should ask yourself whether you should be singing any of that psalm at all. My (naive) understanding is that it was probably written after Nebuchadnezzar had led them into captivity – and before they returned to Jerusalem, led by racists such as Ezra who took pride in duffing up stable marriages because the women were ‘foreign’ and didn’t measure up to the standards of racial purity that he was looking for.

        One of the things we can infer from the beginning of Daniel (where Daniel and his companions were treated very well by Nebuchadnezzar – they were offered, but they chose to decline, the royal food) is that the children of Israel were not treated badly when they were led away to Babylon; the only problem for them was that they were forced to live in a multicultural society which did not have the ethnic purity that they aspired to.

        For me, the last line of this psalm indicates that there is something dark and sinister going on – and therefore I wouldn’t touch this psalm with a very long barge pole when it came to worship songs.

      • Just as you have omitted “happy is he who repays them *for what you have done to us* [137:8c ]. What would you have said if those who took you and your children into captivity and them proceeded to smash the children against a wall – “Thank you Jesus “??

        • Colin – my naive understanding is that Judah had become a cesspool of depravity – and, as a result, God ordained its demise; Nebuchadnezzar was doing God’s bidding when he led Judah into captivity. This, at least, seems to be the basic message of the end of 2 Kings and the end of 2 Chronicles. The psalmist here is therefore blatantly overlooking the root cause of God’s anger against Judah, exhibiting a very short memory and remembering Zion very much through a pair of rose-tinted spectacles.

          • You “wouldn’t touch this psalm with a very long barge pole when it came to worship songs. Why only in the context of worship songs? Why not simply *read* it! I have quoted above the part of verse 8 which seems to be absent from your deliberations. Can you not see that by raising the topic of “God’s anger against Judah, you are saying that this part of the Word of God is failing to follow the intentions (as you see it) of the God and Father of Israel? Moreover you seem to be implying that God endorses what the Jews suffered at the hands of the Babylonians – the slaughter of Children. Please read *what is written in Ps 137 verse 8. And as far as God “ordaining Judah’s demise” I suggest you might like to read Jeremiah 31:31 – 35

          • Colin, you are quite right. We must be careful, as we tap away on our laptops, not to imbibe the age’s false pieties and false righteousness. Ps 137:8 implies that the Babylonians dashed the infants of the Jews on the rock. Justice, according to the Torah, demanded that the same be done to them.

            As Jock points out, what the Babylonians did was Yahweh’s doing – this is very explicit. By proxy he killed without pity (Lam 2:21, 3:43). We would charge him of war crimes. Women were raped (5:11) and assuming Samaria’s experience at the hands of the Assyrians was typical (Hos 13:16), their littles ones were dashed in pieces and ripped from the womb. ‘The children of Israel were not treated badly’ is a serious misreading.

            To add to the moral complexity, Babylon had to drink the same cup that Judah had to drink (Jer 25: 26, 51:11, Ps 137:8). Ps 137:7 also mentions Edom, which was doomed to suffer the same fate (Lam 4:21).

            The OT, unexpurgated, has much to teach us. Faithless Judah was like the faithless Church in our own time (as epitomised not least by St Nicholas’s, Leicester, on whose abomination Ian commented speaking to The Telegraph). The application is that if we are similarly faithless, we too will have to reckon with God’s fierce wrath. We know from Scripture that wrath is coming. It is coming on everyone who is unrepentant, including those in the house of God (I Pet 4:17).

        • Well put Colin. The Psalms are nothing if not honest before God. They “give us permission” to be honest ourselves in prayer. Of course that’s not the same as God saying “amen” to those cries of pain, anguish and even revenge.

          Hence the need to be careful in asking “where is God speaking in the psalms?” I have no problem with them being part of the Canon of God’s Word… though they need to be seen as part of the marriage to the whole revelation.

    • Jesus didnt always quote the the full OT passage, even though ultimately it all applied.

      Also is it really inappropriate to dwell on a certain aspect in a praise song? Im not sure I often praise God for His judgment on me!


        • Im not so sure Geoff. Without going off on yet another tangent, I suspect God judges us in the here and now. Paul seems to imply that, for example, in the instance where some were somehow abusing communion, and he states quite plainly that some had become sick or even died because of it. That sounds like judgement to me.

      • Why not Peter? Look to the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. As a believer it is where God’s judgement falls on you, in your union with Him.

      • Peter – it depends very much on how it is done, the intent of the song-writer, whether the verse used is taken in context.

        For example, Bach’s Cantata 106 he uses the verse ‘teach us to number our days …’ and when I read the psalm that it comes from, this is wholly OK – I see the verse taken in context and used very beautifully (he wrote that Cantata following the death of his uncle). Another example – Mendelssohn’s oratorio ‘Elijah’ which is basically a whole bunch of individual bible verses strung together, to tell the story and give the moral commentary. If you go through Holy Scripture, read the verses in their context, yes – Mendelssohn’s use of these verses is very beautiful, they are all taken in context and the effect is very powerful; clearly written by a man of faith who understood the bible.

        However – if you are presented with a worship song which is basically Psalm 95:1-7(a), which stops at the ‘sheep of his hand’ and doesn’t move on to any of the ‘bad stuff’, it’s a very good idea to ask yourself what the song-writer is doing here and, more importantly, why the people who organised the worship service you are attending are using such a worship song – and you probably won’t like the answer you come up with (connected with basic things, such as conviction of sin – and why the crucifixion was necessary – church isn’t simply a bunch of people who are supposed to like each other). The psalmist clearly seemed to think that Psalm 95:1-11 (including 7(b) – 11) made a coherent song, a song which included mention of God’s wrath and put the fellowship in its proper context.

        Also, if you are presented with Psalm 97:6 where the music is a soothing Hollywood style with strings overdubbed (to quote Glenn Gould on a style of Mozart playing that he didn’t like), you should wonder why they next verse Psalm 97:7 has been omitted – and why, when writing a worship song using a verse from Psalm 97, the verse Psalm 97:10 wasn’t included to give it some context.

        Much of the modern use of psalms as the basis of worship songs looks to me like a synthetic gospel.

    • Colin – well, you know, I’d say exactly the same about yours. It was Origen Adams who brought up Psalm 137 – and he brought it up in the context of remarks I made about verses of psalms being taken out of context for worship songs (I was suggesting that if one feels one has to censor the psalm before one can sing it, then best to avoid it completely for that purpose).

      But let us take a closer look. Firstly – yes – you make the very obvious point (that I don’t think anybody missed) that the verse Psalm 137:8 gives context to Psalm 137:9. If you really think that makes it all right, then I see that you’re strongly in favour of the ‘eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth’ theology that Jesus wasn’t particularly keen on. On further examination, we see that the Babylonians only did to the children of Israel the things that the children of Israel had considered to be normal reasonable practice. Joshua 6:17(b) – only Rahab and her household were to be spared – indicates that the Israelites destroyed everybody – absolutely everybody in Jerico – including women and children (sparing only Rahab).

      So the Babylonians, in their conquest, only applied to the Israelites warfare techniques that the Israelites had already approved of.

      Very importantly, there is no hint of repentance in the Psalm; no hint that the psalmist approves of the assessment we find in Holy Scriptures towards the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles were we are led to understand that Jerusalem had become a cesspool of depravity and that, for this reason God decided to cast them out.

      You state that ‘this part of the Word of God is failing to follow the intentions (as you see it) of the God and Father of Israel’. Not at all. God’s intentions are completely clear; he was creating the conditions for the Messiah to come, a hostile environment where Pharisees thrived and where the church (synagogue) had become so evil that the head of the church even considered it a good idea to put Jesus to death and worked towards this objective (John 11:49-53).

      Of course, there were good and Godly people throughout, but they were very rare; they were always a ‘remnant’. When we have God’s intentions for Israel in view, this gives an additional level of clarity to what we read in Psalm 137.

      • Jock – When you say that ” the Babylonians *only did* to the children of Israel the things that the children of Israel considered “normal reasonable practice” (whatever that means), can you not see that what you accuse me of, “being strongly in favour of” the lex talionis (an eye for an eye —) ; it is you in fact who upholds that principle, given the statement of yours just quoted above.And read again your statement in the paragraph beginning :”So the Babylonians in their conquest, only applied the *techniques*? —“. Two “wrongs” therefore justifying a “right”? Again read what you say in the succeeding paragraph. You quote second Kings and Chronicles to baldly state that: —“for this reason God decided to cast them out”. Really! You have ignored , among others, Jeremiah 31:31f. Moreover, there are many instances of New Testament teaching that present a radically different picture.
        But finally I believe you are doing here a disservice to Scripture as a whole.
        first: in completely ignoring the context of this post, you have ignored the excruciating pain and suffering of a people who have seen witnessed their children being slaughtered and in so doing you have created a pre-packaged theological diatribe with little or no bearing on the biblical context. . Read Matthew2 :16 – 18 ; a quote from Jeremiah 31:15; Rachel bewailing for the loss of her children- Jewish- children. The same theme is take up against the background of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – yes Jewish infants. And why? Because he wanted to eliminate a *Jewish* child! You seem to be oblivious to these things.
        And secondly, “there is no hint of repentance in the Psalm”? So what do we do with it? Exorcise the “offending” verse? Or even remove the whole psalm from the canon of Scripture? Consequently should we not therefore expunge Psalm 88 which seems to propagate a message without hope ? The list could be endless. Which leads me to the final point: some words attributed to Martin Luther in a conversation with the great Dutch philosopher Erasmus (I paraphrase) : “The trouble with you my friend is that you sit over the Word of God. I sit under it! A touch of Teutonic arrogance? Perhaps – but something of relevance in the current context.

        • Colin – if we enter into discussion about this, you really won’t like it – so I probably shouldn’t. I used to take broadly the view that you do (and yes – I would have approached anybody making the sort of comments that I now make with a similar style ‘you’re not reading your bible properly’), but I made an about-turn (and I already touched on the reasons for this – based on (a) the fact that Jerusalem was, spiritually speaking, an absolute cesspool when they were taken to Babylon – and also what happened next when they did return to Jerusalem) and now I see it quite differently.

          I used to take the line that David W. Torrance takes in the book you once pointed to – I now consider this to be a heresy.

  3. Psalms,

    Imprecatory Psalms: What do we do with them; sing, pray, preach, teach?

    1 Context: they are all in relation to a Covenant relationship between God and his people, which includes:

    1.1 Public worship 1 Chronicles 16:8-36

    1.2 Early Christians sand and prayed the psalms, Colossians 3:16: 1 Corinthians 14:26

    1.3 Benedict in forming monasteries directed psalm all be sung, read and prayed at last once a week.

    1.4 Luther called it a “mini Bible”.
    1.4.1 The psalter gives an overview of salvation history from creation, through to giving the law at Sinai, establishing the tabernacle and temple, exile due to unfaithfulness, pointing forward to the coming Messianic redemption and renewal of all things.
    1.4.2 It treats the doctrines of revelation (Psalm 19), of God (Psalm 139) of human nature (Psalm 8)of sin.(Psalm 14)

    1.5 They are seen as a divinely ordained way to learn devotion to God.

    1.6They help us “to see God-God not as we wish or hope him to be, but as he actually reveals himself. The descriptions of God in the Psalter are rich beyond human invention. He is more holy, more wise, more fearsome, more tender and loving than we could ever imagine him to be.

    1.7 Read in the light of the entire Bible, they bring us to Jesus.
    1 7.1 They were Jesus’s song book.
    1.7.2 It is the book of the Bible Jesus quotes more than any other
    1.7.3 More than that, They Were About Jesus. The longed for King was not to be found-this was the seedbed of one of the greatest expectations.

    More could be said and written and has been, but what about the Imprecatory Psalms.


    Various explanations have been given down the ages.

    About 25 Psalms contain words of destruction, violence and death.
    Many commentators have dismissed them as “Old Testament morality” condemned and outmoded in the revelation of God in Christ.” J A Motyer
    There are many examples
    1 Similar sentiments are found in the New Testament e.g. (Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 6:10; 18:20; 19:1-3)

    2 And expressed by our Lord Jesus himself (Matthew 11:20-23; 23:13-36)

    3 If there is a problem, it is Biblical, not merely the OT.
    3.1 The OT like the New urges
    3.1.1 love (Leviticus 19:17-18),
    3.1.2 God’s hatred of violence (Psalm 5:6) ,
    3.1.3 the duty of returning good for evil (Psalms 7:3-5; 35: 12-14)
    3.1.4 the rejection of vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35;Proverbs 20:22)

    4 Almost every case of the imprecation which we find objectionable sits alongside a spirituality we would envy eg Psalm 139

    5 There is no suggestion that the Psalmist planned vengeful action.

    6 Their reaction to hurt was to commit the matter to the Lord and leave it there.

    “I do not find it hard to imagine situations in which holy men of God do and should…cry out for vengeance…and that without any feelings of personal animosity” Stott (the Canticles and selected Psalms).

    “Living as we do in a savage age when personal vengeance is an assumed right, and communal problems real and fancied, *justify* violence, terror, bombing and torture, we ought at least to be prepared to say that even if we deplore their prayers their approach was preferable to ours.
    But there is no need to judge: their prayers shock us because of their realism. We would find ourselves at home with Psalm 143:11 but hesitate over the realistic corollary (12) just as we pray with a glad heart the coming of the Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians.1:7) but would hesitate to frame our prayers in terms of the scriptural realities of that event, by asking for flaming fire to consume those who do not obey the gospel 2 Thessalonians 1:8,
    ” If we were holier- and certainly if we were less comfortable and knew more of the persecutor’s power-we would more readily identify than condemn”
    J A Motyer


    To take up Psalm 137
    “If we love Jerusalem, we must hate Babylon. Properly understood, this is as true today as it was during or after the exile.
    “This psalm breathes intense grief (1-4), deep love (5.6) and passionate aversion (7-9); the three affections are united by a loyal and undivided love for the covenant God.

    v 1-4 recount corporate memory of intense grief for Zion and all it symbolized – the covenant promises to Abraham and Moses encapsulated in the covenant with David. It had been a place of great joy; but now it is destroyed, so there can be no songs of joy and no other source of joy, no idol in which the loyal people of God can rejoice.

    v 5-6 An individual leader breaks out of the chorus to affirm that Jerusalem is indeed the highest joy, yet he is the one who wept when he remembered Zion; and yet he will never forget her(5) will always remember her (6) and will ever consider her his “highest joy”
    He grieves in her desolation, he joys in her enduring promise.

    v 7–9 Prayers led by the same devout believer (and we) if are to love the Covenant God and all his promises with all our hearts, then we must necessarily pray for the destruction of those who sought to destroy the work of this good God.
    Both Edom (v7 cf Obadiah) and supremely Babylon (8,9) set themselves against Jerusalem.

    Those who persist in spiritual membership of these hostile powers, determined never to repent, must be destroyed if Jerusalem is to be secure.

    The New Testament takes both Jerusalem and Babylon as shorthand for the City of God and the city of a hostile and idolatrous world…

    To pray for the destruction of Babylon is entirely consistent with interceding for men and women, that God will give them, as He has given us, the gift of repentance, that they too will flee from Babylon and count Jerusalem their highest joy,
    For in the heavenly Jerusalem is their and our only security in the judgement of God.

    Only Jesus, the Lamb who died for sinners, can safely lead his people in praying this psalm.
    For only in him is to be found such intense grief for the desolate state of his people, such single-hearted joy in all His people will be and…
    Such a holy resolve that -whether by conversion or judgement – wickedness will finally be eradicated from the earth” Christopher Ash

    1. Timothy Keller; My Rock My Refuge
    2. J A Motyer: New Bible Commentary 4th Ed (eds DA Carson, RT France, JA Motyer, GJ Wenham, 1998 re-print)
    2 Teaching the Psalms, Christopher Ash; Volume 1&2; vol 2 From text to message.

    • And as we are going through Romans 12, our text for today at church was Romans 12:14-21
      Verses 17-21 are of a piece with imprecatory Psalms are they not?

  4. Blessed Assurance is not presumption. It is the work of our Triune God.
    We are credited with Christ’s righteousness. In a Divine exchange. Without it we are all lost, without hope. Without it we are saved by Christ but stay saved by our own works.
    Sin and death is a result of the fall and we are all sinners.
    Peter are you really saying that if we were truly saved, none of us would physically die.
    Context of particular scripture is to be set in context of the whole of each, book, genres and the whole sweep of biblical, canonical theology, even systematic.

    • No Im saying Paul’s words are yet another NT example of where it seems God’s judgement has fallen regardless of being a believer or not. So it doesnt make sense to say a believer is already judged because of the death of Christ when he still experiences judgement by God due to a particular act or behaviour. It may not be the ultimate judgement, but it is still judgement.

      ‘Without it we are saved by Christ but stay saved by our own works.’ I dont understand this?

      • PC1 – I don’t understand this sentence either – it looks wholly false. ( I assume Geoff intended to write ‘With it we are saved by Christ but stay saved by our own works.’)

        Paul’s ‘wretched man’ (Romans 7:14-25 – written in the present tense, current experience present tense of a mature believer – namely the apostle Paul at the stage in his life when he was writing the epistle to the Romans) indicates that (a) he is saved and (b) if his own works had anything to do with it he would not ‘stay saved’.

        I think that John’s gospel makes it very clear that death is the state that we are in by nature and we enter into the state of life when we come to believe in him e.g. John 10:14 and John 10:27-28 ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand.’


Leave a comment