June 23, 2016

(Mis)reading the Psalms with Erasmus

I enjoy reading The Economist. Usually their writers are nuanced, balanced, and good humored. Disappointingly, Erasmus, the pen name for The Economist’s commentary on religion and public policy, displayed none of these qualities in his recent analysis of Psalm 109. In the article Erasmus claims that this “gory” psalm “keeps surfacing in American politics,” and that its use in public discourse is worrisome. He cites John Darby, who suggests that the curse called down by the psalmist “targets a broader range of divine enemies.” This sort of thinking can lead to “Christian anti-Semitism” and generally anti-social dispositions, says Erasmus. Instead, politicians (and religious folks, too, he seems to suggest) should steer clear of this “grim” psalm in favor of happier ones, like Psalm 103. Apparently, reading the Psalms with Erasmus means combing for good vibes.

Despite the shallow treatment, Erasmus makes some interesting claims that caused me to wonder. Is the violent language of Psalm 109 out of touch with modernity, a remnant of a more barbaric age? Is its message politically toxic? I think the answer is, “Not at all.” In fact, Erasmus gets it backwards.

The problem is that American political discourse has not taken to heart the lessons of Psalm 109. Certainly the psalmist is vengeful, but his soul’s outpouring to the Lord reveals powerful methods for coping with what eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “social rage.” Much of my thinking on Psalm 109 is indebted to Brueggemann, and all unattributed quotes are from his illuminating exposition of the text.

In the opening five verses, the psalmist lays out the grievances he suffers at the hands of his enemy. Slander, deceit, and hate have been directed against him by those to whom he extended friendship. He made himself vulnerable, but he has been stabbed in the back. We get a sense of a betrayal. He is surrounded by enemies, and they attack him without pity. Brueggemann suggests that this is not simply a “skewed interpersonal” relationship, but a public attack in a court of law. Such a public shaming in a legal setting would likely have far-reaching material consequences for the psalmist. In any event he has been deeply wounded, has much to lose, and, crucially, has a choice of how to respond. In such a situation, one can imagine considering some reckless act of vigilante justice or revenge. Indeed, it is not hard to find examples of such rage overflowing into the social realm with devastating consequences.

The psalmist’s response is prayer – prayer of a certain type. In verse 1 he addresses his plea to God, and in verses 6-15 he makes specific requests:

6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand. 7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. 8 May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. 9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. 10 May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. 11 May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. 12 May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. 13 May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. 14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out. 15 May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may blot out their name from the earth.

Most glaringly the psalmist asks that his opponent die (vv. 8-9) and that his family be erased from history (vv. 13). It is these seemingly vindictive adjurations that so unsettle Erasmus, and admittedly, they are harsh. It is because of the deadly seriousness of these prayers that political leaders should probably refrain from flippantly citing the Psalm 109. Erasmus is right about that. But politicians and civil leaders ought also to be deadly serious about genuinely felt injustices in society. Somtimes they are not, and I believe this explains a good portion of the social rage that exists in America today. With this in mind, we must look more deeply at the careful attention the psalmist pays to due process and proportionality, even in his rage.

Verses 6-15 are cast in “juridical language,” and “the impression left by this section is that we are dealing with a human judicial process in which the speaker has confidence that real justice will be administered.” The legal context is starkest in verses 6-7, which seem to picture a court proceeding with opposing advocates and a determinative verdict imposed by a third party. The psalmist shows sensitivity to the situation on the ground and lucidity with regard to God. He does not limit God by assuming He cares nothing for the just functioning of human institutions or that he cannot use them for His purposes. “The language makes clear that the speaker is not expecting ‘heavenly’ judgment like a bolt out of the blue, but that God’s justice should be mediated through institutional, legitimated human actions out of due process.”

The insistence of the psalmist on due process may be contrasted with the conduct of his enemy, who served in a position of leadership (vv. 8). Since the enemy represented society in some capacity, his disrespect for its rules threatens their stability. This makes it imperative that due process reconstitute the societal norms by convicting the psalmist’s enemy. In so doing it shows that “there are norms which endure and operate in all circumstances without respect to party.” Modern society stands to gain to the extent that both leaders and led operationalize this first lesson from Psalm 109.

After the psalmist prays for a just verdict, he prays for a just and proportional punishment. What crimes has the accused committed? We see them in verses 16-20:

16 For he never thought of doing a kindness, but hounded to death the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted. 17 He loved to pronounce a curse— may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him. 18 He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil. 19 May it be like a cloak wrapped about him, like a belt tied forever around him. 20 May this be the Lord’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me.

As the word “for” suggests, it is this indictment on which the penalty of verses 8-15 is conditioned. Remember, the accused was a leader (vv. 8). He exploited the defenseless in society unto literal death (vv. 16). Brueggemann focuses on the Hebrew word Hesed, which the English weakly renders “kindness.” In Hebrew it connotes covenantal solidarity, and when applied to human institutions, a sort of other-regarding disposition necessary for a “viable social process.” Looking back at verse 12, we see that the psalmist has asked that the one who provided no Hesed receive none. Brueggemann contends that the “curses” in verse 17 likely refers to a “practice of policy toward the poor [that] causes economic ruin,” ruin which the psalmist prays will rebound against its promulgator (vv. 17). Verse 12 should not be read as “a proposal for any other kind of punishment or suffering, but only that the condemned person should live without economic aid, until he is ruined.”

For Erasmus (and myself for that matter), the most difficult aspect of the psalm is the punishment visited on the children of the wicked man. Eben Scheffler of the University of South Africa has written critically of the psalmist, “even if the enemies have done him injustice, he does not care for the suffering of the enemies’ innocent families.” Yet, the poor who have been exploited unto death were innocent also! “The prayer addressed to God is for retaliation as brutal as the initial offense. This is a prayer for strict retribution.” Ultimately, “it becomes clear that this Psalm is not excessively vengeful, but only asks treatment in kind. A first reading suggests it is more blood-thirsty than that, but a close reading shows otherwise.”

There remains another half to Psalm 109. In verses 21-31 the psalmist shows his adoration for the Lord, esteem for His name, and humility before His greatness. He calls on God to sustain him in his weakness. I submit that such pious attitudes among citizens are conducive, perhaps essential, to healthy political discourse and behavior. That there is a Name above all other names does not cause the psalmist to undertake fanatic action, even when his social rage is justified. It leads him to bare his soul before the Lord and pour his rage out in careful prayer. This is the political benefit of what Erasmus calls a “devotional” reading of Psalms. Any risk that fanatics misinterpret or misuse Psalm 109 is a reason for articulate voices to advance, not shy away from, its real message: ardent prayer, due process, and strict accountability are effective answers to social rage.

Politically-minded Christians should certainly avoid the trap of reducing God to an advocate of preferred social reforms or political actions, but we should also avoid thinking He is unconcerned with whether institutions are working for justice. Psalm 109 conveys this balance, and therein lies the value of reading what Erasmus calls the “most violent of the so called cursing Psalms.”


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