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Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Vengeful Psalms

Someone wrote to me about difficulties in the Psalms, specifically places like Psalm 139:19-22, a good bit of Psalm 140, and of course the famous bit from the end of Psalm 137 which says, "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" Lovely bedtime reading.

The Psalms are, as you remember, the songbook of Israel. We have them as poetry, but originally they were personal songs, as songsand hymns used in liturgy. They are the lyrics to the songs of a nation. Since the nation of Israel at the time had no distinction between church and state, the national songs were also the religious songs. They were the poetic and heartfelt cries of a people, just as the songs of any culture remain today.

The reason I connect so strongly to the Psalms is that they are honest, in the way music often is. They set the human heart to music and rare is the mood that is not reflected somewhere in its pages. Psalm 137 tells us at the beginning of the Psalm that it was written as a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. That was not a pretty sight. Babylon's destruction of the capital city of Israel was a long, drawn-out siege. The Babylonians starved them out. The stories report that parents ate their own dead children. Then, when the city fell, the Babylonians rushed in, slaughtered men, women, and children alike and took into captivity all the brainpower, marching them off to a foreign land. They slaughtered all the kings sons before his eyes, and then poked out his eyes...letting the death of his children be his last visual memory.

The destruction of Jerusalem was not only horrible from a human standpoint, it was incomprehensible from a religious view. Jerusalem was the city of God. It was the place where God promised to dwell and that God promised to protect forever, and now it was a smoking ruin. It was a faith crisis as well as a humanitarian one. The laments reflected in Psalm 137 as well as in the book of Lamentations and parts of Jeremiah are the understandable expression of a brutalized people. There might come a time of hope and forgiveness, but it was not now. The pain was still to raw and the anger too recent. Other Psalms likewise reflect difficult and conflicted emotions around either that event or another, either in the personal life of the one writing the Psalm or in the life of Israel as a nation.

I don't look to the Psalms as instruction for what is righteous so much as I see them as honest portrayals of the emotions of God's people. The amazing part is that they do not give up on God. They call to God for justice. They express their rage and the all-too-human desire for revenge. They express deep sorrow and wonder why God seems to have abandoned them, but they never cut God out of the equation. As a result, there are also the Psalms that express restoration and joy and peace and the love of God. All of the cycles of human living and loving are there. It was to the Psalms that Jesus went as he hung on the cross, crying out from Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!"

What the hateful and wrathful sections of the Psalms offer to me is the connection of my emotions to God's people across time. I would bet that if the families of those lost on September 11 had written Psalms, they would have sounded a lot like these, even if they were people of faith. In fact, it was from this sort of Psalm that we at St. John's found connection in the week that followed September 11, gathering to hear words that expressed the rage and anguish of our hearts as preparation for finding a better way.

Again, I think the question boils down to how we look at the nature of the Scriptural witness. It was not written in a vacuum, and every line was not put down as an eternal truth. It is history and story, poetry and symbolism, law and letter, proverb and parable. Some places allow us to see into the heart of God and others let us peek into the human heart. Some passages contain truths that ring down through the ages and others just make us scratch our heads. But I see the Psalms as a look into the soul of Israel from about 1000 - 500 BC. We get to examine the lyrics of their songs...the ones that made the Billboard charts...for 500 years, to see what they sang when they got together for worship, as well as what they sang alone, in the dark watches of the night. At one time or another, I have been able to sing all of them.


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