Violence and Non-Violence in the Psalms

Greetings from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with extended family.  And apologies for getting this post up late.  Living a bit too much in the moment!

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next verse of our Psalm says, “I have walked in my innocency.”  The word is often translated as “integrity”; the Hebrew is something about being “complete.”  But the Septuagint, the old Greek translation, is a nice double negative, “not evil.”  The Latin word innocentia has the same kind of roots: noxia has to do with harm (hence ob-noxious), and innocent just means, “not harmful.”

In any case, it’s an opportunity to discuss violence and non-violence in the Psalms.  Alongside the first line, our beginning is, “grant me justice, Lord, for I have walked in my innocence.”  We talked last week about the claim to be just.  But this week we can see another common theme in the Psalms.  The Psalmist asks God to take action on his behalf.

He says, in effect, the world treats me unfairly.   I will respond simply by doing the right thing – and ask God to take action.  Here the demand for action is less vigorous than some places in the Psalms, but this is the dynamic.

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This dynamic reaches its pinnacle (or nadir) in what are called the “imprecatory” Psalms.  One Protestant source lists these as Psalms 35, 69, 109, 137, and the end of 139.  An old Catholic source adds 18 and 52.  One can debate what fits the list, but the basic theme is pretty clear.

For example, the beloved Psalm 139 (“You have searched me, O Lord, and known me”) ends,

“Do I not hate them, O LORD, that hate you? and am I not grieved with those that rise up against you?

I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.”

 

Psalm 137, one of my favorites, ends,

“O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed;

happy shall he be, that rewards you as you have served us.

Happy shall he be, that takes and dashes thy little ones against the stones.”

 

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What are we to make of this?  The revision of the Liturgy of the Hours after Vatican II simply removed it: in the four-week cycle, you say all the Psalms, except the imprecatory Psalms, and imprecatory verses in other Psalms.  Better to learn to love the Psalms without this, was the reasoning.  The Psalms are not primarily about dashing little ones against the stones.

But these Psalms too are part of our divinely revealed traditional prayer book, and they are richer than they at first appear.  A few quick points:

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1. The Psalms endorse emotion.  We are not called to be Stoics.  It is fabulous to imagine, for example, Our Lady praying these Psalms – or any of the extremely emotional passages in the Psalms.  (And that’s one thing we know: this was her prayer book, as it was that of almost all the saints.)  There is a place for anger – real anger.

Indeed, we have seen Our Lord throwing over the tables of the tax collectors.

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2. But the Psalms never tell us to take things into our hands.  They count on God to avenge us.  This is a radical transformation of our anger.  Its proper place is only in turning to God, asking him to make things right.

Cursing our enemies might not seem Christian.  But we find that where it is right to be angry, our anger should find its outlet only in prayer. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay – says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

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3. As with our meditation last week, see that this is gutsy, dangerous.  God doesn’t take our side.  He takes the side of the righteous.  To ask God to strike down the unrighteous – or even the enemies of his people – is to say that we’d better be on the right side.

It is, in fact, an acknowledgement that sin has consequences, one of the most central themes of our faith.  But it is to see it vividly: it is a very bad thing to be against God.  Praying these Psalms with any self-awareness at all, we end up more focused on doing the right thing than on hoping our enemies will be destroyed.

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4. The true enemy is sin.  We should be angry about it.  All the ways we hurt other people, all the ways we treat God as less than Father, should make us say, “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.”  “I hate it with perfect hatred!” (Ps 139:22).  That’s where these Psalms really take us: not to hatred of people, but hatred of sin, in ourselves and in the other people it hurts.

That’s the real enemy we beg God to destroy.

Are we as emotional about the spiritual life as we ought to be?

eric.m.johnston

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