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:

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. 

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