Imprecatory Psalms

I got to scratch one item off the list last night—along with our twice-yearly crab cake supper (yum!) I taught our Christian Formation class. The title was “The Spirit of the Monasteries for the Modern Church.” The content was what you would expect, exploring the monastic roots of the Anglican Church and the prayer book with an emphasis on the counter-cultural qualities of obedience, stability, and conversion of life/habits.

I did get a good question when I was talking about the formative role of the Psalter—specifically, do the monks give us anything to help us make sense of the imprecatory psalms? These are those psalms that make us cringe when they get used in public worship (or at least have sections that do) and, as a result, have been chopped out of most denominations’ worship books and even get short shrift in the current BCP’s Daily Office lectionary: Pss 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139.

Because we headed off to talk about other difficult passages where God or the people act in ways that seem amoral or immoral, I never got back to my usual answer. My usual tack is that these psalms function akin to a mirror. When we see these thoughts expressed openly, we recoil from them—and rightly so; it means that our moral sense is fully intact. How they assist us, though, is that they confront us with their honesty. When we are truthful about ourselves and the effects of sin within us, we must acknowledge that these psalms express real feelings that we feel. When they confront us, we have an opportunity to recognize the ugliness contained in our own interior life, an ugliness that can only be addressed when it is admitted, then confronted.

So—that’s where I didn’t go. Instead, I took another angle that I think I want to explore more. The patristic and medieval Christians took much more seriously than we the notion that all of Scripture is edifying. With our modernist notions of what’s right and wrong and convinced that our moral discernment trumps the text, I think we can and do often put ourselves in judgment over the biblical text and simply reject the portions that overly offend us. That approach both is and is not how the monks dealt with both the imprecatory psalms and some of the hard sections of the Old Testament.

First off, let’s acknowledge that there are certain biblical texts that should offend Christian sensibilities. Sometimes (like with Hosea and Ezekiel), I think the author was being intentionally provocative and intended to offend. In other portions (I’m thinking events in the historical books as well as the psalms), the author thought that the behavior narrated (genocide, what have you) was completely fine. And we can’t be fine with that.

In the second case, how do we deal with the text? On the surface, both moderns and medievals do the same thing: a rejection of the plain sense of the text. The difference is what happens next. For moderns, when we reject the plain sense of the text, we tend to also reject the text as a whole. For the medievals, they remained with the text, confident that somewhere in there was something edifying. Turning again to the fundamentals of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, they kept chewing on the text until they could extract some form of edifying meaning from it, no matter how tortured it appears to us. These meanings then, would co-opt the literal meaning and would, in effect, become the new “plain sense” of the text.

For instance, a common monastic trope is to talk about dashing incipient vices against Christ. Nobody had to ask what this related to. The literature inculcates the moral meaning of Ps 137:7-9 to the point where the substitution of “vices” for “the little ones” of the “daughter of Babylon” and “Christ” for “the rock” is automatic. So on one hand, the medievals were being more obedient towards the authority of the text than we tend to be. On the other hand, they were also more subversive of its meaning to the degree where the more palatable and edifying interpretation would be adopted as a wholesale replacement for a more obvious but less edifying one.

My questioner wasn’t totally satisfied with this answer—that we just make an end-run around the literal sense—and wasn’t convinced that this is a case where the monks can inform the modern church. Perhaps he’s right. But the lesson that we could stand to learn, though, is the patience and discipline of wrestling with texts that confront us with a moral perspective alien from our own.

15 Replies to “Imprecatory Psalms”

  1. Great post, Derek. Your argument in favor of grappling with the text also tends to support the use of the Cranmerian 30-day Psalter so as to avoid overlooking anything in the Psalms that might have offended the crafters of the current BCP lectionaries. That being noted, it seems difficult to make the time necessary to read/pray through the 30-day Psalter. Which do you use in your Daily Office?

  2. You know how it is when the little kids bring home paintings from the art class at school. They are, in most cases, ridiculous—with little or no artistic value. However, we praise them and mount them on the refrigerator with magnets — why? because they are an evidence of a good-faith effort on the part of a child who, after all, cannot be held to the same standards of excellence as a trained adult artist.
    So it is for me with the Psalms (indeed, with some other parts of the Hebrew Bible): this represents the “childhood” of faith, the infantile insights, the puerile offerings. They are very imperfect, but they are the best one could expect from kindergartners — and they provide a foundation on which more mature faith can be built.
    Besides, I remind myself that my monastic forebears have chanted these Psalms for 1500 years — so there MUST be a value to them (even if I cannot see it all immediately). Maybe, just doing it as a product of obedience has its own virtue.

  3. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that the allegorical reading was understood as the reading of the Church. We understand, as they did, the plasticity of the text. But we make of that that the text can therefore mean anything. They, in contrast, attributing authority to tradition, found these meanings from the Fathers, as an anchor to prevent allegory from becoming anarchy.

    I have this year been re-reading Augustine’s Confessions, a book which I little cared for when younger, but now find enlightening. Augustine at first thought the Christian scriptures deplorable, until he learned to read them as a Christian from Ambrose. They did not interpret themselves.

  4. Bill,

    I use the 30-day cycle precisely for this reason. That’s also why I make it the default in most versions of the breviary. When I’m running short on time—which is all too often these days—I try and make it a point to at least read through the psalms even if I can’t get through the whole Office. The better answer, of course, is simply to make the time for it but that’s easier said than done…

    Fr. John-Julian,

    On one hand I agree that some of the things expressed in these texts should be seen as products of a less developed stage of human moral reasoning—but then I consider the 20th century… Perhaps we’ve simply gained a greater eloquence in justifying our genocides. And too, some of these texts seem to be from a basic stage if we approach it from something like Fowler’s Stages of Faith. My worry when we do that, though, is that—again—we can deploy these as rationalizations to avoid sitting with them. Of course, in your environment you don’t have that luxury. :-) I absolutely agree that they provide a fundamental foundation, and I wish that more clergy and laity alike were intentional about laying and utilizing that foundation.

  5. Rick,

    One of my monastic mentors has argued that what keeps allegorical interpretations grounded is not tradition but rather the environment within which they were located. All interpretations of the Scriptures were grounded within the fundamental habits and practices of the Mass and Office. This framework of shared experience allowed room for interpretive ‘play’ since the common practices circumscribed the boundaries of the playing field.

  6. Derek, you’ve tapped one of my concerns with the Monastic Breviary of the Holy Cross, as much as I as an Associate love the Order and the Breviary. That’s why, although most of the time I use the Daily Office Lectionary instead of the 30-day plan, I do make sure to use the alternate readings and so include the “nasty stuff.”

    I am usually in tune with your “first response,” reminding listeners that these were also human beings trying to live faithfully before God, who sometimes even in Scripture projected their own stuff onto God. Thus, while I wouldn’t go where Fr. John-Julian has gone about “spiritual immaturity” (well, not often or in public – although with my kenotic Christology I have been known to respond to some of the Sermon on the Mount with, “that’s what Jesus said before he fully understood what it meant to be Messiah.”), I do think it useful for us to see that our spiritual ancestors struggled just as we did, and sometimes with no better outcomes.

    I’m aware from reading of your “second position,” what we might call monastic “data mining.” I’m too much a creature of my own time to go there often, but I see the point. I find myself wondering how we might raise that image – in many ways, a very reformed, “vernacular” approach to Scripture – in our formation today, balancing both the need for standards of what reflects Christ and what can the Church affirm (pace Richard) and respect for the individual’s experience of the Spirit in Scripture.

  7. Actually, I really don’t care for the second kind of reading – I think it’s a fantasy, and an unhealthy one. I don’t really see the need to try to explain away the problematic verses; to me it’s far better to look directly at what they are saying and recognize that this, too, is part of the human experience. I like what you once said about Psalm 137, in fact: Happy are we that we are not at the present time in bondage and thus not currently having those kinds of feelings. But these things have happened in the world, and we are human beings; it’s important to keep both these facts in mind, in my view.

    But then, I don’t think that the Bible is any one thing. It’s a collection of all kinds of things: history, literature, genealogy, drama, myth, fable, metaphysics, and so forth – and for me it’s just better to accept it as such. Personally I like the Anglican formula that the Scriptures “contain all things necessary for salvation” – and am very happy that this is not the same thing as saying that everything in Scripture is necessary for salvation.

    There really IS work to do in that, which keeps the whole enterprise fresh, in fact. And we should be embarrassed to be human sometimes, shouldn’t we? That’s reality, too….

  8. (And I’m not sure why the second kind of reading is more “edifying” than the first; to me it seems less so.

    It’s far more edifying, in my view, to get a good hard look at the reality of the hardness of the human mind and heart at its very worst, and to be worried about that. We should be worried about that.)

  9. I understand that approach, Derek, but I agree with bls. It is valuable to face into our own desires for vengeance, frustration, fear, anger, rage, domination, etc. Perhaps moreso than ever after a century of the worst of human atrocities on the level of society.

    The imprecatory Psalms act as both confession and mirror for our own self, society of the Church, and world in our uglier, that is, fallen aspects. Only if we face into these passions distorted by sin can they be turned to the good. As Isaac of Scetis noted, the passion of anger is meant for justice. But anger not adequately faced into becomes not justice in the image of God, but a self-righteousness without mercy.

    If as the Church has tended to claim, the Psalms are Christ’s song and in Christ our own, these Psalms can make us confident that Christ took into himself and thus into God the whole range of the human condition, fallenness and all, and being without sin, redeems these in his response as the perfect human resemblance of God (Ex.) because perfectly God, that is, God’s perfect self-gift on the level of human creatures looks like this–loving us unto death, death on a cross, rather than smite us.

  10. I would add that building on bls further, our saying of these Psalms is not necessary for our salvation. Though that Christ took the worst into Godself and redeems it, is.

    Salvation is accomplished, but for the working out of salvation in us, for self-examination, for societal-self-examination these Psalms remain of central value as much as the Psalms of Creation’s laud.

    I cannot because of time say the full swing of the Psalms of the 30 days. What I do do is make sure that at least two of the Psalms I say in any week are imprecatory, one morning, one evening. The Benedictine and Anglican ethos does not allow us to pick and choose what types of Psalms only we will say, that is at the heart of Benedict’s instruction and of our own division of the Psalter. Whether we can do the 30 day cycle or not, our saying each week should reflect Psalms of all types irrespective of our favorite types or individual Psalms.

  11. I agree that the mirror is the best and preeminent understanding. But I don’t want to leave behind the moral meaning either as I find it useful.

    Again, my preference when talking about the meanings of the biblical text is to insist on just that point: the text has meanings plural. Most texts have a variety of possible meanings and one of our jobs as careful interpreters is to hold multiple meanings in relation to one another. The art of interpretation is then weighing the utility of each meaning for the specific interpretive context or question for which it is being used. Sometimes that answer has to be a bold statement along the lines that “the primary meaning that this text is communicating is fundamentally at odds with the Gospel as revealed in the character and person of Jesus.”

    So with the dashing babies text, I think that the historical context of the destruction of Jerusalem is critical—this is a cry of passion from a parent who has lost children at the hands of ruthless oppressors. Second, the spiritual use of the text as a mirror—no matter how much we’d prefer to hide from it, we have feelings like this and sometime with much less cause than a grieving parent. Third, the moral meaning—one useful tip when you catch yourself at the beginning of an act which inclines towards sin is the remembrance of Jesus. So all of these are useful interpretations but not all of them receive the same weight, the the third receiving the least of these three.

  12. Derek, I like your emphasis on meanings. And to take a cue from Fr. John Julian, it seems to me that these different ways of reading and hearing the Psalms speak to us in different ways at different stages of our own spiritual life. Looking at our own human sinfulness in the mirror of the Psalms is needful when we are indulging our sinfulness. And then hearing the Psalms tell us to dash our passions against the Rock is also needful! But I think these readings go hand in hand–sometimes we can’t hear and respond until we see and are shown–we cannot comprehend the prescription or hear and implement the remedy if we’ve not yet received the diagnosis or are unsure what the disease might be. In this way, the Psalms in their entirety truly present the medicine of the Gospel.

    -M

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