Enemies in the Psalms

         O daughter Babylon, you devastator!                  Happy shall they be who pay you back
                  what you have done to us!
         Happy shall they be who take your little ones
                  and dash them against the rock!

                            — Psalm 137. 8-9

Many people feel uncomfortable with the Psalms that that pray for deliverance from and even violence toward our “enemies.” We often skip over those parts, both in public worship and private devotions. Here are some reasons not to.

1. The Psalms are not all about how we ought to feel or what we wish we believed.  They’re about who we really are.  And we do have angry thoughts & feelings that we need to honestly confess. Sometimes those Psalms express our secret anger. Expressing those feelings doesn’t mean we give our hearts to them; in fact usually saying those things out loud names what we renounce, and leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling: a deep need to repent right now.  These Psalms bring us to confession.
2.  Our “enemies” are not necessarily other people. I do not consider anybody my enemy, even some deluded terrorist who’d like to blow me up.  My real enemies are my fear, my hunger for approval, my desire for power & control, and so on.  And I do indeed dislike those enemies, and I wish God would destroy them.  To my anger or my self-centeredness I say, “Happy shall be they who take your spawn and dash them against the rock.” Sometimes I need to say that out loud—in the company of a community who can offer forgiveness, transformation and hope.
3.  The Psalms are not our personal Hallmark cards to God.  They are the cry to God of humanity as a whole.  The Psalms voice not only our own feelings, but also the cry for justice of all who are oppressed.  If these Psalms are more visceral and vengeful than we’re comfortable with that’s because they’re not our cry: they’re their cry of the oppressed against injustice. They were written by real people suffering real evil. In praying these Psalms we take their anguish seriously, we stand in solidarity with them and we lift up their prayer, even if it’s not how we would say it.

4. Although we do not wish personal harm to come to the perpetrators of injustice, we do oppose their evil, and we lament its fruits. The “enemies” in these Psalm are not necessarily individuals. “Babylon” is not a person; it’s a nation, a corporation, a system, a cultural mindset. We don’t pray for the destruction of people, but we do cry out for the destruction of what an unjust system generates, its “little ones.” Of course by our complicity we ourselves are also enemies of justice—which brings us back to the first two points about confession.

The Psalms, with all their reverence, anguish, joy, gentleness, sorrow, rage and hope help us embrace our whole experience, worship with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and stand in solidarity with the whole human family and all Creation.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Unfolding Light

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