by Marjorie George
“Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom . . . happy the one who pays back Babylon for what they have done to us! Happy the one who takes their little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:7-9)
So much for “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Which brings us to the question of: What are we to make of it when the psalmist draws a bead on a particular enemy and unleashes a tirade of venom? In several of the lament psalms, the call for vengeance on one’s enemies becomes callous, even vitriolic. Take, as an example, these verses from Psalm 109:
“Set a wicked man against [my enemy],
And let an accuser stand at his right hand
When he is judged, let him be found guilty,
And let his appeal be in vain.
Let his days be few,
And another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife become a widow.
Let his children be waifs and beggars,
Let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.” (vs 5-9)
One way to deal with these psalms, sometimes called the “imprecatory” psalms, is to delete them from Christian worship. And yet, we believe that all Scripture is given for man’s edification and “contains all things necessary for salvation.”
Some background on these psalms will lend perspective.
First, while it is always beneficial, some say necessary, to read Scripture in its original context, nowhere is that more important than in the psalms. The psalms give voice to a people who were oppressed and voiceless. The psalms, says Bernhard Anderson in Out of the Depths: the Psalms Speak for Us Today, did not deal in a world of “pure ideals – the good, the true, and the beautiful. . . . The laments of the Psalter are raised from the depths of human anxiety, from which the emotions of bitterness and hatred often well up.” Psalm 137, quoted above, was a folk song that begged for vengeance against the Babylonians who, assisted by the Edomites, destroyed the nation of Judah in 587 B.C.
Second, the Hebrews had an inviolable identity as God’s Chosen People. So they were pretty well convinced of the rightness of their cause. C. S. Lewis, in Reflections on the Psalms, suggests that while Christians fear judgment and plead for mercy, the Hebrews welcomed judgment when they would – finally — be vindicated. Bring it on.
Further, as God’s Chosen People, the Hebrews were the protectors of the good name of God. Sins against God were as sins against his people and vice versa. God’s enemies were their enemies. If vengeance belonged to the Lord, the Hebrews were in his corner, fighting the good fight.
This is not to excuse or condone the speech of the imprecatory psalms. “We must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must be somehow good and pious,” says C. S. Lewis.
So how are we, as Christians, to deal with the hatefulness of the imprecatory psalms? Dietrich Bonhoeffer advocated praying the psalms every day, including every part of the Psalter. But he approached the psalms from the post-crucifixion and post-resurrection experience. “Christ on the cross prays for his enemies and teaches us to do the same,” says Bonhoeffer in Psalms, the Prayer Book of the Bible. How can we still, with these psalms, call for the wrath of God against our enemies?”
We can, says Bonhoeffer, if we understand that “the enemies referred to are enemies of the cause of God. The prayer for the vengeance of God is the prayer for the execution of his righteousness in the judgment of sin.”
Applying this to my own life, I find that the enemies with which I struggle are not men out to persecute me for my religious beliefs. I am in little danger of being burned at anyone’s stake. My enemies are more often the insidious little sins that beset me day after day – in the words of the Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence: “the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of my life; my self-indulgent appetites and ways; my anger at my own frustration and my envy of those more fortunate than myself; my intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts . . .” (Book of Common Prayer, pg 267).
Would I like the wrath of God to smite these sins and destroy them forever? You betcha. Can I, with the psalmist, plead with God to “let their days be few”? Absolutely.
But do I understand everything about the imprecatory psalms? Nope. So I will read them carefully, taking to heart where God seems to be speaking to me, and leave the rest without condemnation or judgment.