THE discussion on the Psalms raised by Elizabeth Harrington (Liturgy Lines, CL 2/6/02) led me to read through them after a long period of personal neglect.
The unashamed venting of one’s rawest inner turmoils and desires that is typical of the Psalms has always attracted me. However I have always been put off by the recurring pleas to Yahweh to visit the most diabolical of punishments on the unjust persecutors of the person praying the Psalm.
The poetry is always sublime but the hatred equally palpable.
My latest revisiting of the Psalms has fortunately led me to read a book that explains in a meaningful way the substance behind what appears to be the bloodlust inherent in the psalmist’s persecuted as well as in the psalmist’s persecutors.
The presence of the desire for extreme vengeance in the Psalms reflects honestly their historicity. It is against that dating that the real value of the Psalms is contrasted in complete starkness.
The author of my commentary on the Psalms pointed out that the Psalms may well represent the earliest literature in which the persecuted victim is championed by Yahweh as innocent. The Psalms acknowledge the victim’s innocence and the justice of Yahweh’s protection.
The Psalms prefigure Job who is mocked by the crowd as he suffers. Job is the individual victim for whom Yahweh is his defender against the crowd (Job 19, 25).
This turns orthodoxy on its head since at that time the orthodox view would have been that the individual, out of step with the crowd, was the guilty party deserving of victimisation and persecution.
The Bible today seems like so much history of past significance. However the Psalms affect me because they, like the Bible generally, have a dual aspect. That duality is not afraid to record the journey of the Bible characters out of barbarism and violence while at the same time displaying insight into the human condition at a profound level.
A level where, as the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12-13) says, the word of God penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints from marrow – nothing is hidden.
It is against this history that the lone forgiveness of Jesus on the cross, of an individual for his persecutors who are the crowds, stands out both as pure Jewish heritage and forward looking innovation – an innovation so powerful that it has been preserved in the New Testament as essential to Jesus’ rising from death in power.
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