Safeguarding the Psalms
Some parts of scripture are harder to read and apply than others. At my church we generally start our time of worship each Sunday with a reading from a Psalm. This week we are up to Psalm 137 but I think we’ll skip it on account of the smashing babies heads thing. One Mothers’ Day I did preach from the story of the Levite and his concubine but even for me Psalm 137 would be a tough lead into worship.
Of all the troublesome scriptures, the imprecatory Psalms are among the most troubling. Many churches dispense with Psalms 58 and 137 altogether – they are just too violent and perplexing for modern sensibilities. They seem to clash too irreconcilably with “blessed are the peacemakers.” Yet if all of Scripture is Scripture, God-breathed and helpful for instruction, then these Psalms must have a purpose and a place.
There are five guidelines I find helpful when it comes to these Psalms:
1. The Psalms are Poetry
Things can be said in poetry and song that would not be acceptable in normal speech. Poetry is meant to express strong emotions in strong terms – it is deliberately hyperbolic. These Psalms are like that.
2. God is not afraid of strong emotion
The Psalms are emotionally raw because so many of them were composed in the context of conflict – whether personal or national. They teach us that strong emotion is not inappropriate for praise and prayer: that where we tend to castrate prayer, making it polite and formal, the Psalms let rip – and God seems to be okay with that.
3. These are songs of the oppressed
For a western congregation, living largely comfortable and secure lives, increasingly concerned with safeguarding, it is understandable that we come to Psalm 137 and ask, “How am I supposed to read that as a Christian?” So it is helpful to turn the question around and ask, “How would I read this if I was in Syria/Afghanistan/Somalia? How would I have read this in Auschwitz? Or Stalin’s gulag?”
These Psalms are the cry of the underdog, of the abused, of the victim. And as such they can help us be more fully Christian because they call us to side with the oppressed. If injustice doesn’t ever cause us violent emotional response, something is wrong!
If we read Psalm 137 as the testimony of a refugee, who has seen loved ones butchered in front of their eyes, the women raped and the old people humiliated, now being asked to perform for the amusement of their tormentors, it begins to make much more sense. This is the cry of someone who is powerless. It is a plea for justice. And it is meant to be shocking because it is meant to get our attention – and God’s.
4. God is the judge
God is judge of all the earth (Psalm 58:11) and when the judge appears there will be different reactions: for the oppressors, terror; for the oppressed, liberation! That means that these Psalms are not just declarations of violence but a plea to the judge – and that makes them very Christian. It was Jesus who said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19).
5. Jesus fulfils the Psalms
Jesus bore the wrath and pain of these Psalms on the cross. When the psalmist cursed, “Smash their teeth,” Jesus was the one who was smashed so we might be made whole. Jesus is able to sympathise with the oppressed. He is the judge who has born the verdict against sin in Himself. It is at the cross we find hope for justice and at the cross we find forgiveness and mercy.
I won’t be reading Psalm 137 at the start of our worship this Sunday but I’m not going to excise it from the canon. One day, in the new Jerusalem, we will need it no more, but we need it now. So long as there is injustice in the world it is a Psalm we need.