11 – Violence in the Psalms

Home Learning Hub Violence in Scripture 11 – Violence in the Psalms
The Psalms is another area from where we often take texts from to allow Christian violence. But the question remains again. Why didn’t Jesus interpret the Psalms this way? Why don’t we see Jesus take up violence, if the Psalms allowed and in some ways promoted it? If Jesus shows us the true and full image of God, why then do the Psalms speak of violence? Is the image of Jesus in the Gospels, not his true image? Does his image change after the resurrection, back into a vengeful, violent punisher of sin, even though in the Gospels he refuted that spirit in his disciples?

These question must be answered from the Jesus of the Gospels, from the things that he actually taught; as God said, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” He is the word of God, meaning his life and message in the Gospels is God’s final and accurate word to us. We don’t water that down with “God’s word” from other texts. Rather, we interpret the other texts through the Jesus of the Gospels.

We have often jokingly said to our Bible College students, that for the first year of their studies we will only allow them to have the Gospels. “Spend one year studying only Jesus, what he said, and what he did. Make sure we get that and discuss that very well, and understand God only from Jesus’ perspective, and make sure that we start putting what he told us into practice, in our relationships with everyone in our close and wider communities.” This is what God told us to do. Then, only after we have been orientated properly to Jesus, do we bring the other scriptures in and read them. Now we are interpreting the other texts through the eyes of Jesus, and not through the eyes of our own cultures.

What about the Psalms, that speak of Christ’s kingdom taking over the world through violence?

“You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:9) There is a lot going on here. First, the language depicts the complete victory of Christ over the forces of darkness within the gentile nations. This victory is described using the language of the time, which the Psalms were written in. It is an absolute victory. The same victory is described in Daniel 2, where the stone from heaven smites the image of the gentile powers on the feet and it crumbles to dust, while the stone grows into a mountain and fills the entire earth.

When Jesus came, the Jewish people then were largely expecting the Messiah to overrun their enemies in exactly this way. They assumed these prophecies would be literally fulfilled by physical violence. The ministry of Jesus shows us that they misinterpreted these prophecies completely. So, if we interpret these prophecies violently, we are also misinterpreting them in exactly the same way.

Jesus turned these prophecies unexpectedly on their head, so that he would take the crushing of the gentile nations himself. Isaiah predicted he would do this, in chapters 52-54. He would be crushed by humanity. The violence of these prophecies would be carried out by humanity, and not by God at all.

The conquest of the nations, of the satanic principle working in all those nations, would be achieved through the violence of those nations, and not by the violence of the Messiah. Violence against the Messiah would expose the injustice of these powers and bring about a renewed heart in the people. This renewal would extent through the world, conquering the old way of life as it spreads.

Conquest language was also commonly used by Paul. This is the great subversion of the scripture. It uses language of victory to subvert the worldly victor. It turns out that the one who loses, in the world’s estimation, is the winner. In Colossians, Jesus was stripped naked, and died on the cross, but in submitting to this, he stripped the worldly powers naked of their false justice and false claims of religion. If we saw a prophecy in Psalms saying, “He will strip the powers naked,” you wouldn’t expect that to be fulfilled by the cross.

Often we see an artist’s impression of Paul’s “armour of God” in Ephesians, where a Roman solider stands with his usual equipment. But Paul wasn’t thinking of that impression at all. The helmet is salvation, not a steel head covering. Paul’s image completely subverts the soldier’s dress and looks nothing at all like it. He subverts the whole issue of fighting in our minds. Fighting, is the Christian’s walk in the love of God. The scripture adopts war language to overthrow war entirely.

Paul shows in Ephesians, that the new heart in Christ has conquered Old Testament violence, where he says that the cross reconciled former enemies. With this new heart, Jews and Gentiles have now become one in faith and love. This has conquered the enmity, or the enemies of the Jews, just as God promised in the Old Testament. But the conquering was achieved through reconciliation, not through destroying the racial enemies. That is, the enemy was within our hearts, all of our hearts, Jewish and gentile hearts. This enmity, this alienation from God and from each other, was destroyed by Jesus on the cross, when he forgave us our sins. He conquered our enemies by reconciling us to each other.

This is how God expects us to go about conquering our enemies, and overcoming our challenges in the world; not through power struggles, not the world’s way. It is clear that God’s kingdom is not of this world, meaning that it doesn’t employ worldly ways in renewing the nations. God expects us to renew our enemies, and meet our challenges, by being servants of reconciliation, following our God and not the other god.

Paul noted in Ephesians 2, that Jew and gentile have now been forged into one new house, the household of faith. Here, Paul speaks of a new building. In the Old Testament, crushed potter’s vessels were used as part of a cement mixture, to hold the bricks together in their new houses. The cement mixture was very strong. So by being crushed, and coming to live in our new hearts, he becomes the cement that binds former enemies together in an unbreakable bond of love. The old enmity between Jew and gentile has been completely overcome and defeated by God. This shows us how we should fight in this world; the same way God did; through acts of reconciliation.

Let’s bring a similar text in from Isaiah here: “But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” (Isaiah 11:4)

This passage speaks of God’s judgment renewing the earth. It is a judgment of mercy and salvation to the poor. God does this through the rod of his mouth, which is his word. His word renews our heart. His Spirit gives us new birth. By this, we renew our communities, so that the poor of our nations are served and find mercy. It is his word that slays wickedness in our hearts.

This shows us how God fights. It is creation language, as we see in Genesis 1. God’s word and lips, which formed light out of darkness, and goodness out of disorder, forms a new mercy for the world through a new creation in the hearts of his people. This isn’t justice through punishment, but justice through mercy to those trodden down. The vision is of a justice that comes through new actions; whereas the old actions crippled people, the new actions restore people. This salvation, this renewing of the world, is “the hope of righteous” that the church is bringing to the nations through its cross life community. (Galatians 5:5)

“I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.” (Psalm 89:25)

This beautiful Psalm shows how God defeats the evil in the world. His king will rule with mercy for the poor. His word will renew our hearts. In this way he quells the raging torrents of covetousness in our nations, thereby “crushing” through reconciliation the injustice and violence. He stills the waters of human vengeance and the powers of gentile military greed.

He brings justice to the world by lifting up the poor, the ones the world powers tread down. He does this by renewing our hearts and sending us into the world as his servants.

“He will judge the poor of the people. He will save the children of the needy, and will break the oppressor in pieces… He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Psalm 72:4, 8)

This dominion from sea to sea speaks of all the world, but also of the renewed waters of turbulent, covetousness human nature. In renewing this nature, God subdues every enemy under Christ and renews the world. He destroys the oppressor by reconciling him, changing his inner man, and this effectively taking the oppressor out of our way.

This also involves us knowing how to make peace with our enemies, taking up God’s new reconciling lifestyle: “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be a peace (at one) with him.” “He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies.” This means we eat together in reconciliation. The phrase, in the “presence” of my enemy, uses a similar Hebrew word as was used for Eve who she became a helper to Adam. This is how God unites us in Christ.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” (Isaiah 42:1-4)

This is how God brings justice to the world. He does it through his servants. The form of justice he is bringing is mercy to the weak. He doesn’t come in a rage and destroy the wicked. He ministers to the weak of the nations. This is what Jesus did through the Gospels, and this is what he sends his church into the world to do, as a different type of community to the greed around us.

The church should not be discouraged in taking up our cross and serving, until the ends of the earth are transformed. We are among those who don’t break the bruised person, or judge and put out the one with a faint light, but we work with Christ to restore. Justice for the sufferer is brought forth by a God who acts in this healing way, not giving the person his legal due, but mercy.

These prophecies do have a destructive side. But it isn’t God who does the destruction. It says God does it, but this is in the language of his sovereignty, not of his personal violence. God has judged that only the meek of the earth will inherit the kingdom, and this means that the violent will selfdestruct.

It just means he removes his grace. That is all he needs to do. The seeds of destruction are already inherent within the violence. He destroys wickedness by forbidding it his grace. That is all that is required for his part. He neither motivates nor carries out the slightest bit of the violence. The only other thing he does is to set about saving the meek, in this life, or in the life to come.

All other kings kill people to maintain peace in their kingdoms. Every religion uses violence to protect itself, but we have a King who did not build his kingdom with the blood of men. He did not protect his interest, but he gave his life for his enemies. He rode on a donkey, symbolising peace. He lived peace and he preached peace. By doing this, he conquered the enemy (sin, the devil, and death).

Finally, he commanded us to follow his steps. Jesus; the Prince of Peace!

There are also the Psalms that call for God’s destruction of our enemies. These are mostly by David. Firstly, David isn’t Jesus. He was a man. He was an imperfect man. He had many faults, just like we do, as we know. So, we don’t take his Psalms as the perfect representation of the will of God.

Secondly, many of the Psalms are lamentations, where, in Hebrew style literature, the writer is grieving over his problems. Lamentations generally start off with the problem and then end up with praise. In between they offer all kinds of human responses of anger and frustration. The people who wrote the Psalms were humans, and God didn’t expect them to bottle up their emotions.

Psalms were an opportunity for the people to air their human views. There is nothing wrong with doing this. But the Psalms invariably end up with Messianic predictions of victory. The writers often couldn’t quite understand how this victory would come. They could only see the Messiah in terms of how they would do things. They didn’t know he would take this conquest by his own sufferings, rather than the sufferings of others.

Then there are Psalms that include verses like this one below:

“How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” (Psalm 137:9) How many times has the state church used this text to march out against its enemies? It used this verse to slay children in the Crusades, when the Muslims refused such barbarity. You see, the Bible, taken at face value, is every bit as violent as the Quran, if not more so. But we don’t take it at face value. However, we still have pockets of violence in our theology that can still be very destructive, especially in our national activities. Why then, if we still stumble to understand our own texts, do we so quickly say we understand and are able to judge the Quran?

The above verse is taken from a lamentation Psalm. Is was written from the Jew’s captivity in Babylon. They wept by the rivers of Babylon and lamented on their captivity in a strange land. The Psalm uses common Hebrew poetic devices, such as personification. Babylon is called the daughter of Babylon, like a young lady growing into adulthood and influence in the world. Her little ones are her soldiers, the army that destroyed Jerusalem and carried away the Jews as captives.

This Psalm is definitely not speaking of infanticide. But neither is it speaking of revenge upon the army of Babylon. It is just lamenting. It is said in extreme grief. There is no literal intent by the author to have revenge against all the soldiers. It is only said to help them carry away their tears. It is just a human response to their pain. This is what the Psalms were written for. This is very common in such cultures. They don’t have the Western “stiff upper lip.” Again, we shouldn’t interpret Eastern texts by our own cultural views.

The Psalms cannot be taken as an excuse for violence. When read through Christ and his redeeming work, the Psalms carry no call to the church to violence, in any respect. Rather, they speak to us of the opposite. They show that Christ conquers violence by renewing us with his word, and bringing us to the place where we will carry the sin of the world as servants, responding with mercy and service, like he did, rather than react against violence with violence. The Psalms show that it is violence itself that Christ conquers. This was the problem David faced more than anything, and which he lamented about, and this is what God solved forever through the work of his Son. He has taken violence out of our hearts, answering David’s prayer for help and deliverance.