Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 30, 2012

Psalms of Vengeance: The problem is bigger than you think!

One of the biggest problems people tend to have with the Psalms are the statements of vengeance and hatred that David has towards his enemies. These cries for vengeance surprise us, they seem out of place in religious literature! David often talks about how he hates his enemies, and uses graphic language to describe how he desires their defeat. In Psalm 139 David says, “do I not hate those who hate you, O Yawheh?” In Psalm 3 he says, “strike my enemies in the jaw, break the teeth of the wicked.”

I have never known what to do with these Psalms. How do we appropriate these violent words in light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pursue non-violence?

in his book, Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann helps to explain the purpose that these Psalms can play in our spiritual lives. Essentially, Brueggemann turns the tables on the reader. He writes,

“The real theological problem, I submit, is not that vengeance is there in the Psalms, but that it is here in our midst.”

The real problem is not that David has feelings of hatred and vengeance, but that we do too! The problem is bigger than we think. Anger and hatred are our reality. We have enemies and we get angry.

Unlike David, however, we live in a society where we do not have a venue to articulate our frustrations. We live in a highly censored society, where it is inappropriate to confront these feelings of anger. Brueggemann suggests that this is unhealthy. He argues that we need to recover David’s honesty about his anger if we hope to find healing and arrive at reconciliation.

First, David’s honesty about his anger allows him to deal with it. Brueggemann writes, “it is a speech which lets us discover the power, depth and intensity of the hurt. The Psalms are acts of self-discovery that penetrate the facade of sweet graciousness.” The Psalms of vengeance, function in a similar way to the Psalms of lament – they help us to be honest about reality so that we can deal with it in healthy ways. Brueggemann suggests that when we put words to our anger, anger has less power over us. If we do not confront our anger it builds up within us. “The words pile up like our nuclear stockpiles.” If we do not have a venue to diffuse them, we are at risk of detonation.

Secondly, Brueggeman reminds us that these words of vengeance are just that – words. He suggests that David’s ability to articulate his frustration prevents him from simply acting out in rage. Brueggeman writes, “where there is no valued speech of assault for the powerless, the risks of deathly action are much higher from the persons in despair.” The point he is making is that if we do not express our honest frustrations, we are more at risk of acting out in in anger in a physical way.

Thirdly, David’s honesty about his hatred and anger are worked out in the context of prayer. David does not utter these hurtful words to his enemies directly, but brings it before God. This is a healthy thing. David is forced to try and work out his anger in light of God’s guidance. He is given perspective. It is important to note that David does not take vengeance into his own hands. He gives it to God, and asks that God would bring justice. By framing his anger in light of God’s justice, David is freed from its power. David, then, does not taking things into his own hands, he trusts that God will bring justice to those who are oppressed. It is up to God to deal with his enemies.

I have been thinking about this in light of the recent mass murder in Colorado. Some of the victims have come out with statements of forgiveness towards the murderer. Others have been a bit more hesitant. In response to tragedy and senseless killing, we do ultimately long for reconciliation and forgiveness. Nevertheless, it is not something that can be arrived at by sweeping real hurts and frustrations under the table. We need a venue to be honest about the anger and rage we have towards this experience of evil. My contention is that true forgiveness and reconciliation is only possible when we have space to bring our anger before God and find consolation that he is a God who will bring justice to the oppressed.

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