Why Are So Many Psalms So Violent?
By Fin Sheridan
The Psalms mention the words “enemy” or “enemies” 104 times. That means that, over the course of the 150 chapters, we come across it often. Those kind of verses can often be confusing and sometimes downright troubling. Either the enemies seem to be doing something harmful to the writer – which no-one is going to put on a coffee cup – or God seems to be doing harm to the enemies – and that can be hard to reconcile with the New Testament God as revealed in Jesus. It can be tempting to just skip over these verses and move on to the nicer ones.
Let’s take Psalm 63 for example. Verses 1-8 are excellent devotional material:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
“We have to encounter the Bible as a whole; not just grabbing verses or chapters out of context to wave as proof for a particular worldview.”
But then we get to verses 9 and 10 – ‘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 a portion for jackals.’
I don’t know about you but, even when someone cuts in front of me in a queue (a terrible crime), I still don’t want them given over the sword and to be eaten by jackals. It just seems a bit extreme.
Another example is Psalm 25. Right up until v19, it’s been fine and then bam! “Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me!”
There are 2 things worth remembering here, that are helpful for us. Firstly, often the writers of these Psalms, especially King David did have real foes who did really hate him and want to kill him and an essential part of his life was protecting God’s people from these enemies. Time and time again, we find God supernaturally defending Israel from attack. These verses were real realities for them.
Secondly, we too have foes – although the vast majority of us don’t consider them often. The Bible is clear about our battle – no longer with flesh and blood but with “the powers and principalities of the present darkness and spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). We have an Enemy and he is against us. Not only that, but we also battle with sin – most of which comes from within, the “old self” which struggles against God’s new creation. The Bible writers often call that “the flesh” – Romans 8 for example, presents a clear picture of life according to the flesh verses a life led by the Spirit..
Remembering this can be really helpful because it can refocus us on the battle at hand. Consider your own heart for a second. What lusts, what pride, what anger, what jealousy still remains? If you’re anything like me, far too much! And I can quite happily join with David in asking that God destroys those familiar foes. As we make war against sin, the violent promise that “God will let me look in triumph on my enemies” (Psalm 59:10) becomes reassuring and a powerful prayer.
We have to encounter the Bible as a whole; not just grabbing verses or chapters out of context to wave as proof for a particular worldview. It is clear, through the teaching of Jesus, particularly in Matthew 5 and Paul’s teaching on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, that Christians aren’t engaged in ‘flesh and blood battles” where we should ask God to kill our enemies but instead in a wider, greater struggle; the redemption and renewal of all things to Christ, a battle which has already been ultimately won.