Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Psalms: yesterday and today

Gordon Wenham discusses the imprecatory psalms in his new book on the Psalter, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Baker 2012). I’m going to quote some passages. My only caveat is that he uses the word “poor” indiscriminately. But Scripture distinguishes between those who are poor through no fault of their own, and those who are poor through imprudent or sinful lifestyle choices

What the psalmist asks of God is the application of the talionic principle. We bridle at the bluntness of the “eye for an eye” formula, but we applaud the principle of proportionate justice (170).
This is the so-called lex talionis, which, although it has sometimes been decried, actually spells out a principle of universal justice: the punishment should fit the crime (112).
It seems probable that the list of curses in Ps 109:6-20 reflects the actions, or at least the accusations, of the psalmist’s oppressors. In either case, his prayer is that they be punished in the way they have afflicted or intended to afflict him. The psalmist is asking for justice, not revenge. This will demonstrate to others that God hears prayer and intervenes on behalf of the poor and oppressed (171).
 “His [the psalmist’s] sole concern is the credibility of God…The truth of this God is at stake. If the speaker of the psalm fails as a witness to these traditions about God, the groups who…orient themselves to him as their ‘model,’ and who join him in opposing the…‘ridiculing of God’ will also be disappointed and ashamed.” Thus, it is not merely his own discomfort that drives the psalmist’s prayer, but the honor of God’s name and the perseverance of those who trust in him (172).
The prayer is thus an expression of the lex talionis, in that Yahweh is asked to place back upon the enemies the experiences that they had themselves generated for the psalmist (173).
But when his prayers are answered, then God’s goodness and righteousness will be vindicated, and the humble seekers after God will be glad: “For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners” (v33). The psalmist “trusts that in the conflict between the powerful and the weak, the persecutors and the persecuted, the exploiters and the poor, Yahweh will in principle take the part of the victims.” (173).
J. Clinton McCann remarks,
The psalmist’s request is in accordance with what most persons, then and now, would say is only fair–the punishment should fit the crime…In particular, the enemy deserves no kindness (v12, or “steadfast love”), because he showed no kindness (v16). The enemy deserves to be impoverished (vv8-11), because he mistreated the poor and the needy (v16; see Ps 10:2). The enemy deserves to be cursed because he cursed others (vv17-19,28-29; see Ps 62:4). In short, the enemy deserves to die (v8), because he pursued others to their death (vv16,31)…God’s steadfast love means judgment upon victimizers for the sake of the victims–the poor and the needy (174-75).
In this perspective, the imprecations against the psalmist’s enemies are comparable to the oracles against the nations in Isa 13-23; Jer 46-51.
First, the psalmists see God’s honor and reputation being at risk if the wicked get away with their misdeeds. Second, the psalmists ask only that justice be done. Third, the psalmists’ persecutors should suffer in the way they have made others suffer. Fourth, in praying for retribution to fall on their enemies the psalmists are surrendering their case to God instead of plotting to take vengeance on their own (175-76).
Zenger argues that much criticism of these psalms is essentially Marcionite–that is, the idea that the Old Testament portrays an essentially Jewish God of wrath and judgment, whereas the New Testament reveals the Christian God of love and mercy. Zenger points out that the passion in these psalms is based on a conviction of God’s steadfast love for his people…We note that the idea that God is judge runs through the New Testament, from the parables of Jesus to the book of Revelation. The second coming, when Christ will judge the living and the dead, is the great hope of the early church (176).
Within the Psalter, Zenger observes, disbelief in divine judgment is one of the marks that distinguish the wicked from the righteous. The wicked ridicule the idea that God will intervene on behalf of the poor and oppressed (176).
“These psalms are expressions of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God” (177).
And this commitment has at least three ethical implications for those who pray the psalms. First, by praying them, worshipers express deep sympathy with the feelings of those who suffer. “With their concrete expressions of fear and pain, they bring pain to the center of ordinary religious and social life. They are the expression of that sensitivity to suffering that is constitutive for biblical piety, and for any way of life that is shaped by the Bible” (178).
“As we pray and reflect upon Psalm 137,” McCann adds, “we remember and are retaught the pain of exile, the horror of war, the terror of despair and death, the loneliness of the cross” (178).
Those who pray these psalms today may be taken aback by their directness, but could that reflect our own sheltered existence and the blandness of the piety tha we were raised in and have continued in? These psalms shatter our illusions and make us face life in the raw and make us ask if we really believe in a sovereign, loving God (179).

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