The Glorious Psalms

Amy Cottrill has written a new book on the psalms (HT: Jim Davila), focusing on their imprecatory dimension:

“‘These are people that believe God cares about their pain and suffering enough that in order to relieve you, God will kill the enemy,’ she said. ‘The psalmist isn’t just expressing pain, he wants something done about it. The prayer is: “God, kill my enemy.”‘

“Psalm 109 calls for curses upon the enemy: ‘May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children!’

“In Psalm 58, the writer calls for the enemy to be punished: ‘The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.’

“‘This is very bellicose literature,’ Cottrill said. ‘It’s very violent. They are asking God to go kill their enemy.'”

Another juicy one is Psalm 137, which declares “how blessed will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks!” As I noted in my analysis of a fundamentalist pastor’s sermon on Romans 11, theologians have struggled for centuries to reconcile a God who commands people to love their enemies with the same who says kill and curse your enemies. But a pastor like Steven Anderson sees no contradiction. He adores the imprecatory psalms. From that sermon:

“Boy, the book of Psalms is one of the greatest books in the Bible. The most doctrinal, fantastical. I love the book of Psalms. If you notice that David will sometimes pray destruction upon people. He’ll actually pray for people to fall, and pray for people to be killed, and pray for people to be destroyed by God. And he’ll tell God, ‘Forgive not their sin’. He tells God to damn them to hell. Okay, you may not have read that; you need to increase your Bible reading, okay? You need to read the book of Psalms a lot more. Theologians call these psalms the imprecatory psalms. ‘Imprecate’ means to curse. Okay? And they’re basically a curse like this: ‘Let their table be made a snare.’

“Now is he just praying that on anybody he doesn’t like? Absolutely not. The Bible says that we’re to love our enemies. And to do good to them that hate us. And to pray for them which spitefully abuse us and persecute us. We’re not to pray bad things on our enemies. We’re supposed to pray good things on our enemies. We’re supposed to bless our enemies. But there are people who are the enemies of God.… Those kind of people are the bad guys. Okay, those are the ones that are evildoers, that God said he hates.”

In other words, love your personal enemies, but hate certain groups of people (for Anderson that means gays especially).

Cottrill takes a more academic view of things. It’s not that the psalmists distinguished so neatly between “these and those” kind of enemies. They just thought of God as a warrior: “Most mainstream religious people do not think of God as a religious warrior, [but] the psalmists did. To them, God is all-powerful, but God is also very personal, very close. They definitely feel they have access. Sometimes they barter with God, saying, ‘If I die as a result of this suffering, who is going to praise you?’ That’s a pretty bold view.”

Her book is called Language, Power and Identity in the Lament Psalms of the Individual.

One thought on “The Glorious Psalms

  1. Too bad it is impossible for extremists – this snippet of Cottrill (if in context) and your fundamentalist preacher – to reframe these imprecations in terms that match the covenant promise both to the anointed (Pss 1-2) and to the Gentiles (Ps 147++).I am not going to argue with either of them. Life in words alone is truly bellicose.

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