David Ker is uncomfortable with the passages in the Old Testament that seem to revel in thoughts (and actions) of vengeance against one’s enemies. So am I—and it would be deeply troubling to meet someone who wasn’t. There are some awfully graphic, bloodthirsty places in Scripture. David notes in particular a couple of psalms. Psalm 63:9-10 says:
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
Perhaps most famously, Psalm 137 ends with these blood-curdling words:
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!
What is a believer to do with this sort of material? David suggests, and I think he is right, that verses like this may need to be omitted from the public reading of Scripture if there isn’t going to be an opportunity for a teacher or preacher to set them in some kind of context. Some of the people who show up at public worship have little or no framework for understanding such texts. Reading an unbowdlerized version of Psalm 137 with “little ones” present may prove problematic—especially if those little ones are paying attention, love to ask questions, and don’t have a parent with formal theological or biblical training!
Even so, there must be some forum in which these words are brought to the surface of our Christian consciousness and owned as Holy Scripture. As John Hobbins reminds us, latching only onto the parts of the Bible that suit us was precisely the heresy of Marcion. We can’t ultimately “fix” these texts by sweeping them away, and in fact these texts have played an important, positive role in the history of Christian spirituality.
In Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault observes that the vengeance passages in the Psalter have an important purpose in contemplative prayer. In that setting, the Psalter’s “shadow material” makes it possible to talk about the darkness humans carry with them and provides a means of letting go of it. She states,
What I believe happens when we introduce the psalms into our consciousness—and even more so into our unconscious—through the practice of contemplative psalmody is that they begin to create a safe spiritual container for recognizing and processing those dark shadows within ourselves, those places we’d prefer not to think about. There are times in the spiritual journey when anger is a very real part of our live, just as jealousy, abandonment, helplessness, rage, and terror are. All of these emotions are in us, and they’re all in the psalms. Perhaps we’re not terribly pleased with ourselves when we find ourselves praying, “Destroy all those who oppress me, O Lord,” but most of us have felt that way. (43)
In other words, the vengeance passages confront us with the darkness in our own souls so we can deal with it in a spiritually healthy way. (I have discussed Bourgeault’s “therapeutic” approach to the psalms elsewhere, and the remainder of this post is mostly a re-post of that material.)
In the past, I have found Bourgeault’s approach to be a helpful jumping-off point for teaching mature Christians about the imprecatory psalms. The key for me is to identify accurately the “enemy” one is asking God to destroy. Relying on the traditional triad, “the world,” “the flesh,” and “the devil,” I tend to see three possible ways to redeem these psalms for Christian use:
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Emotional Catharsis (the enemy = the world). This is the model Bourgeault develops. By means of this sort of reading, I confess that I have real enemies, flesh and blood people who delight in doing me wrong. My feelings for them are not entirely Christlike, and I need to own up to that fact and seek God’s transformation.
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Self-Mortification (the enemy = the flesh). Bourgeault alludes briefly to this model at the end of the chapter, where someone explains understanding these psalms as prayers for God to destroy in oneself those sinful attitudes that prevent spiritual growth and holiness. This reading allows me the opportunity to admit that I am often my own worst enemy. I need God’s refining fire to do away with those parts of me that are at cross-purposes with God’s will.
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Spiritual Warfare (the enemy = the devil). I believe this was also suggested by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who of course understood themselves to be “soldiers of Christ” doing battle with the forces of evil in the wilderness. This reading recognizes that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces that must be brought into subjection to the will of God.
Similar approaches can help us with some of the other vengeance passages in the Old Testament. This material is difficult, to be sure. But they remain a part of the Bible for both Jews and Christians. Therefore it is important for us to find ways to navigate their turbulent content and come out for the better on the other side of them.