Distressing Psalms

The book of Psalms is a hymn book. It is a collection of hymns that was used first by the people of Israel primarily for services of worship in the temple in Jerusalem and in the synagogues of scattered Judaism. In later years this book of 150 hymns was adopted by the Christian Church as one of the major components in its worship. It was the very first “Book of Common Prayer” used by Israel and the Christian Faith in corporate worship.

In fact, for much of Christian history the psalms were the primary songs used in the worship of the church. Even to this day the Psalms are used more than any other Biblical Book in the lectionary readings in the churches. Most churches have a set of four readings from the Scriptures designated to be read each Sunday. One from the Older Testament, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels and one of the Psalms. A Psalm is read, chanted or sung in most churches of Christendom each Lord’s Day.

Those who do surveys on sermons, report that the psalms are used for the text of more sermons than any other book of the Bible. Those same surveys tell us that they are used more in private worship than any other Biblical book. Specific psalms have also been committed to memory more than any other portion of scripture, other than the Lord’s Prayer. Obviously the Psalms are deemed important by the church.

The Uncomfortable Reality of the Psalter

But this reading or singing of the psalms present us with a rather odd phenomenon. There has been a long tendency to skip verses in the public reading of some of the psalms. We do surgery on some psalms because they shock us. These acts of surgery are called “Psalmectomies” or “textotomies.” We cut out the offending words.

For example, look at Psalm 139. It is a Psalm of praise and of great comfort to us all.

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end —I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Invariable we read verses 1 to 18, then omitting verses 19 – 22, we skip down to 23-24. Why? the verses omitted create a problem for us. Its violent words are disturbing to say the least.

In fact, the entire Psalter poses problems. There are times this book rings strangely on our ears. Some of them sound so primitive, so unchristian, so far removed from our modern life. C.S. Lewis writes, “They are almost shockingly alien; creatures of unrestrained emotion, wallowing in self pity, sobbing, cursing, screaming in exultation, clashing uncouth weapons or dancing to the din of strange musical instruments.” (Christian Reflections.)

But sometimes, it is not an odd verse or two that bothers us. But an entire psalm. such as Psalm 58. make us want to take out our scissors.

1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge people fairly?
2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.
6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
7 Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth!

Some of these songs sound positively “unholy”. So in most of our churches we often do not read such Psalms in public, or when we do, we only use the “nice bits” as calls to worship.

It is of interest to note that our current hymnals and PowerPoint slides are very different than this book of ancient hymns. Our songs are almost all sweetness and light. There are no songs that express our anger with our neighbours or our disappointment with God. There are few songs of impatience or doubt. We have declawed and defanged this ancient hymnal, so that our worship of God can be “enlightening and uplifting.”

How can such a book be considered inspired?

Now this uncomfortable reality about the Psalms has raised the question, “How can we call some of these songs – inspired by God?”

There are some parts of scripture that do give us that sense of being Divinely inspired. A prophet comes with his “This is what the Lord says….” and we hear the voice of God speaking in the prophet’s words.

There are other times when the writer sees inspired visions given by God and picking up pen writes what he sees, such as St. John when writing the Book of the Revelation.

There are other times when we do not sense the same direct speaking of God at work, but we say that God guided the writers with wisdom. The historian Luke is not caught up in the inspiration that has a strong emotional outflow. Instead he is a researcher, comparer of traditions and an accurate recorder of the events he has heard about.

The writer of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles seems to share the same experience. But we say that God was at work in their understanding and in their writing. The writers of the Wisdom literature appear to be inspired similarly.

But whether the inspiration is cataclysmic or quiet, the message is treated as a message from God to the believing community.

But the book of Psalms is very different from those scriptures.

If the words of the prophets appear to be God speaking to people and the historians and the writers of wisdom literature appears to be more like people speaking to people about God’s activities, the psalms seem to be people primarily talking to God and talking back at God. If the other books appear to be God speaking to humanity, directly or indirectly, the psalms are responses from some very human people. They appear to be human-initiated words, not divinely inspired words. Sometimes the words sound demonic not divine. They accuse God as well as praise him. They say untrue things about God, as well as things both true and beautiful.

How then do we count this strange collection inspired?


Let me offer us two definitions of the word “inspired”. The Greek word that is used is “theopneustos” which simply translated means “God-breathed”. But the question is, – breathed out? or breathed into? Let me explain.

If we say that the scriptures are breathed out by God it infers that God is the primary mover, the original author, and the writer is simply a willing scribe, taking down in his own words the initiating word that God has sent. So for example this view says that God directed Paul to write to the Galatians, and inspired Paul with the contents of the letter, allowing Paul to write it down in Paul’s own words. God breathed out the message, into Paul, who wrote it down. It is the word of God in the words of Paul.

Let me suggest a second way of looking at God breathing or inspiring scripture. This approach says that God breathed into the biblical writings and made them into his own living word.

The model is taken from Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” The man is shaped as a man, but he is only of the earth, part of nature, not a living soul. There is nothing divine about him. But when God breathes into him, man becomes not only a living soul, but humanity made in the image and likeness of God.

Using this approach, the book of Galatians would appear to be constructed this way: Paul feels a sense of urgency for the people in Galatia. Taking up his pen he writes this pastoral letter. It is written by Paul the primary author. It is written in his style. He has written dozens of such letters. Most of them were never saved by the original readers and have disappeared. But God may well have chosen to preserve some of Paul’s letters, because the message was needed by the entire church, and God breathed into the correspondence and in doing so “adopted” this letter as His word as well as Paul’s words. Wherever Paul’s letter to Galatia was read, the Spirit of God has placed His Nihil Obstat (nothing standing against it) and His imprimatur (let it be printed!) on it. The church in its Canon recognized the ownership/approval of God.

Now back to the Book of Psalms. With the first model of inspiration the book of Psalms is not understandable. With the adoption model it is. The book of Psalms is human. Very human. They are reactions good and bad to what is happening in life. They are words spoken to God and at God from mortals and from healthy saints and at times from sinning saints.

But God who has heard these prayers somehow wants them retained in the scriptures.

The Word of God Does the Work of God

The Word of God is that which does the work of God. That which God uses to fulfill His purposes. And when you and I read these songs, God uses them to draw us to himself and to each other. He uses Balaam’s donkey, he uses faulty people to be leaders of Israel & Church, and these songs, with all of their blunt outspokenness, are used by God to effect the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives.

They are means of grace, even if they are not very gracious themselves.

How does it do this? The psalmist’s cries are also ours. Their curses are ours. Their self righteous moments are ours. Their questions are ours. Their disappointment with God is shared by us. Their hates are felt by us. Their joys are too. Their domestic bliss, their moments of worship are shared. They have voiced our prayers from the entire width of human experience and told us it is OK to pray such prayers.

Eugene Peterson in his little book “Answering God” suggests that we should pray these prayers to God, one after the other, as our Book of Common Prayer. They should be used to ween us away from our own shallow and sanctimonious prayers.

But, let us dig a bit deeper into some of the songs of dissonance that we find in this ancient hymnal. The next articles may prove helpful.