The Psalms and the Demons

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The third line of our Psalm 26 says, “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  But why do we need to trust in God?  Why do we slide?

The Psalms talk often about “the wicked,” and use a lot of military imagery.  (Also, as here, there is courtroom imagery: grant me justice!)   This adversarial language is for many people one of the greatest obstacles to falling in love with the Psalms.

But there is much to be gained from this warfare spirituality.  Today, let’s take some time to think about our spiritual enemies, the demons.


We face, first of all, metaphorical demons.  Think, for example, about the “seven deadly sins.”  (I did a series on these last fall.)  “Deadly sins” sounds like “mortal sin,” so we might be tempted to think the point is that these are the things you go to hell for – and then wonder how gluttony could possibly be on that list.

But the older language is “capital sins,” from the Latin word for “head.” These are the “principal”or “leading”sins, or also, the “headings” under which you can consider other sins.  The point is that gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride are the root causes of other sins: not just sins themselves but also things that lead us to sin.  The danger of gluttony, for example, is that it nurtures a sense of self-indulgence, of giving in to whatever feels good at the moment – and forgetting the spiritual battle.

The even older language (especially in Cassian) is “the spirits” of sin.  Now we are close to the metaphorical idea of “demons.”  Gluttony (wrath, sloth, etc.) are metaphorical “demons” that oppress us.  These “spirits” are not looking for what’s good for us; in fact, since they drive us without reference to our true happiness, they are our enemies.  Desire itself is not an enemy, but this tendency to run out of control is a real danger.


It is very helpful in our spiritual life to “objectify” these enemies, to name them, take them seriously, and go to war against them.  To realize that they will destroy us if we don’t destroy them.  This is war.

One thing that is helpful about this objectification of our metaphorical demons is that it helps us to distinguish ourselves from them.  I am not gluttony.  That isn’t me!  In fact, that’s . . . something else, some other power, that’s trying to hurt me!  The Psalms’ insistence on talking about enemies helps me to think this way, to separate myself from my sin.

And of course, in the Psalms, the metaphors always emphasize that our enemies are too strong for us, but God comes to our help.  It is always the helpless nation of Israel calling out to the Lord to come to the rescue – “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  Thus the way the Psalms discuss spiritual warfare also helps us to focus on grace.


But though we can think of the “spirits” of sin as metaphorical demons, we also need to be reminded that there are real demons, fallen angels.

How should we think about the demons?  The cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other actually isn’t too far off.  It is far better, anyway, than more “muscular” images of demons who throw physical objects or make heads spin (though these things are real too).

The angels are immaterial creatures.  They cannot control our free will, but they can make suggestions to us.  Good angels can point out to us things that we ought to notice.  Bad angels, demons, can plant bad ideas.  It is awfully helpful, when our minds start running to negative thinking, when all we can think of are other people’s faults, for example, or ill wishes, to realize that there do exist spiritual forces who are cleverer than us and who wish us ill.

Why would they want to hurt us?  Because they want to be in charge.  They want to be the smartest guys in the room.  (Sound familiar?  They aren’t so different from us.)


The warfare imagery of the Psalms reminds us that there are bad influences in our spiritual life, both metaphorical and real demons.

The Psalms have a magical way of shifting our focus: we may begin by thinking that other people are our enemies, but soon we see that our real enemies are spiritual.

Watch for a time today when you need to distance yourself from your demons.

St. Augustine on Spiritual Warfare

Just as we have descended to this evil state through one man who sinned, so through one man (who is also God) who justifies us we shall ascend that height of goodness.

No one should be confident that he has passed over from the one state to the other, until he has arrived where there will be no more temptation – until he has achieved that peace which is his aim in the many varied struggles of this present warfare, in which ‘the desires of the body oppose the spirit, and the spirit fights against the body’s desires.’

Now this war would never have been if human nature had, by free choice, persisted in that right condition in which it was created. As it is, however, human nature has refused to keep that peace with God in happiness; and so in its unhappiness it is at war with itself.

And yet this evil state is better than the earlier condition of this life; for it is better to struggle against vices than to be free from conflict under their domination. Better war with the hope of everlasting peace than slavery without any thought of liberation.

Our desire is, indeed, to be free even of this war; and by the fire of divine love we are set on fire with longing to attain that orderly peace where our lower parts may be subdued to the higher in a stability that can never be shaken.

But even if (perish the thought!) there were no hope of attaining this great good, we ought none the less to prefer to continue in this state of conflict, with all its troubles, than to allow our vices to have dominion over us by ceasing to resist.

-St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XXI, chapter 15