Struggling with Violent Content of Psalms
Dear Father John, Lately I have started praying the Psalms, even using some of the Liturgy of the Hours. Every once in awhile, I run across sections that throw me for a loop. I mean, there are phrases like “Destroy them in your anger, destroy them till they are no more” (Psalm 59:13) and “Repay them as their deeds deserve, as befits their treacherous actions; as befits their handiwork repay them, let their deserts fall back on themselves” (Psalm 28:4). It’s hard for me to pray these prayers, when I think of what Jesus said, “Love your enemies…” I know priests pray the Psalms all the time in the breviary. How do you deal with all these condemning, violent references?
This is a great question, and I can’t promise to give a complete or completely satisfying answer. The Bible is God’s Word, his own revelation. We have to remember that it contains much more than we can fathom. It would be naÃ¯ve (at best) to think that we can fully understand the eternal Lord. St. John Chrysostom likened the Bible to a gushing spring on a mountainside. It never stops flowing with clear, cool, and refreshing water, but when we go to drink, we can’t possible take it all in. We drink a minuscule amount, just enough to slake our thirst for a while. Then we go back, but that fountain keeps gushing. So let’s try to take a cup full by reflecting on your question.
Making the Case
First, let me up your ante. The phrases you quote are tough, but we can find even tougher ones. In Psalm 140 (verses 8-11) the psalmist prays to the Lord on behalf of his enemies as follows:
Lord, do not grant the wicked their wishes, do not let their plots succeed. Do not let my attackers prevail, but let them be overwhelmed by their own malice. May red-hot embers rain down on them, may they be flung into the mire once and for all. May the slanderer find no rest anywhere, may evil hunt down violent men implacably.
In Psalm 109 (verse 8-11), the psalmist prays for God to treat his enemy like this:
May his life be cut short, someone else take over his office, his children be orphaned, his wife be widowed. May his children wander perpetually, beggars, driven from the ruins of their house, a creditor seize all his goods, and strangers make off with his earnings.
Psalm 110:6 gives praise to God in a way rather alarming to our modern sensibilities: “He judges nations, heaping up corpses, he breaks heads over the whole wide world.”
I include these quotations just to reiterate your point: this violence is not an aberration or exception in the Book of Psalms; it is present throughout, so wondering how to deal with it is a legitimate concern. And since you asked me specifically how I deal with it, that’s what I’ll tell you. I deal with it in two ways.
First, passages like these can remind us that God knows how to deal with real people and their real struggles. Obviously, the author of this Psalm was writing from his heart. He makes a sincere plea that God intervene in his troubles, getting rid of their source. The psalmist is approaching God with total confidence. The psalmist is aware of his status as a child of God, a member of God’s chosen people. The psalmist is convinced that God really cares about things that matter to him personally, and that God has the capacity to intervene and make a difference. How it must have thrilled God’s heart to hear a prayer uttered with such vibrant, honest, and earthy faith! It was not the prayer of an angel, but the prayer of a man, a human being who is trying to live his God-given mission with gusto, and is faced with powerful enemies and thorny obstacles. Is that how we pray? Is that our attitude towards God?
We tend to overlook the brilliant quality of these prayers. Our attention immediately goes to the vengeful emotions and the violent emotions and desires that Jesus taught us to purify. But the psalmist lived before the fullness of revelation in Christ. There was nothing in Old Testament theology that forbade vengeance and violence against one’s enemies. The people of Israel understood only that God had chosen them to be a nation set apart, that he had promised to protect them and make them prosper, if they obeyed his commandments. Other peoples, pagan nations who didn’t know the Lord and worshipped idols, were not on the same level as themselves. Their enemies, from their perspective, were God’s enemies. God had as yet revealed neither Christ’s universal love and limitless mercy, nor mankind’s universal brotherhood in the Church. God was patiently and wisely priming history of the Incarnation when the psalmist was writing.
Second, although Jesus taught us to purify vengeful, angry emotions and violent desires, the Church assures us that he never meant to eliminate them. They are part of being human. In the face of evil and unjust opposition, virtuous Christians need the help of strong emotions in order to do the right thing. The man who feels no anger at injustice may be falling into spiritual sloth. The purification of these inevitable human experiences involves directing them towards their true object: sin and the devil. The real enemy of our souls, the real enemy of the Church, is sin. And the devil is the shepherd of sin. The vehement expressions and sentiments of the psalmist are healthy when directed against sin and the devil. We should hate sin, in all its forms, though we must strive to love sinners and work energetically for their redemption. In other words, the violent images in the Psalm are an inspired way for us to understand how anti-sin we really should be.
Encountering violence in the Psalms, then, gives us a chance to learn how to be honest and passionate in our prayer, and it also turns our irascible tendencies into vital allies in our fight for truth, justice, and holiness.
Your is Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC