In case you feel tempted to dismiss “the Psalm Problem” as if it is not a problem, it is going to be necessary for you to explain to the average intelligent reader, what we do with a poet who devoutly prays to God about his enemies asking that God might

break the teeth in their mouths;
   tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
   like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
(Psalm 58:6,7)

And, of course most famously, anyone who does not struggle with some of the Psalms is going to have to provide a satisfactory explanation for the joy of those who “dash” babies “against the rock”:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:8, 9)

It is tempting to look away from these terrifying sentiments. Bede Griffiths proposal to eliminate the Psalms we don’t like, seems posited on the assumption that our sacred texts should not cause us to struggle. This seems a dangerous assumption to me . And, if instead of walking away from the hard parts, we persevere in our reading and pondering, perhaps we may find light and inspiration even in these most violent and offensive words.

An alternative proposal to dismissing the difficult Psalms that feels potentially more fruitful, has been suggested in the comment section of this blog on 27 April by bobmacdonald who has put in heroic efforts studying and wrestling with the entire Psalter. A man of stout heart, he has not feinted from the hard bits and finds the journey exhilarating. Bob writes:

This is a grand walk we are on. Thanks for the word by word and verse by verse approach. We have before us, as we do in our ambivalent lives, a set of poems that draw us out of ourselves into a relationship of mercy to each other in the body, as well as individually and personally. How do we get to see this overall movement of the Psalter?

I find myself taken in a direction I am not expecting to go when I look at the words of this poetry. I noted this morning what I have seen before: that Psalm 2 is reflected in Psalm 149, the second psalm is a frame in the second to last psalm so much so that 7 of the 14 words in verses 2 and 8 of Psalm 149 are dependent on words in Psalm 2. I have put a post with an image here

As we read in sequence, we don’t see this, and if I look at the words in Psalm 149, I see that there is a frequently used word that is not yet reflected in the first two psalms. Its first occurrence is in Psalm 4. This word is in English, ‘mercy’ or ‘kindness’, ‘loving-kindness’ in the traditional authorized translation. The word, in Hebrew, hesed, and it’s noun hasid, occurs 291 times in the Old Testament, 155 of these are in the Psalter.

It seems to me that the Psalms are definitely a move by the Mystery to teach a violent and rebellious people the reality of mercy.

The possibility that confronting the violence in the Psalms might move us toward “mercy” is a powerful and helpful suggestion.  Perhaps these difficult Psalms hold up a mirror to my face, causing me see my most “ambivalent” parts and leading me to wrestle with the darkness that often lurks just beneath the surface of my life. In this way, for all their violence, they may help open my heart to the “loving-kindness” that is a foundational characteristic of the God who the Psalmist devoutly sought even in the midst of terrible affliction.


A day later… early this morning… Bob added a further helpful comment which reads in part:

For myself, my violence, my self-interest, my privilege, my opinion is not sufficient to define reality. But it does tell me that I have a problem. And I see the problem of violent self-interest everywhere. It doesn’t solve the problem to gloss over or fail to read the real conflict that we have. 

Why I am not offended by the violence in the psalms? Because each instance of it has its place and gives way to a movement in me away from the violence that is in me. These poems bring me face to face with mystery – and with life, even if it is initially only the mystery that I am to myself and the life that I know in my limited experience.

They are certainly strange poems, and they have been given to me, but they are not mine to limit or correct – whether I believe they are sacred writ or not. They will define themselves and they don’t need me to hold them up.