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:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- the biblical view of creation
- what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
- what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
- what is so good about the Old Testament?
- Why should we welcome the stranger?
- How can we rejoice in an imperfect world?
- What does scripture say about disability?
- What are the scriptural roots of our understanding of preaching?
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.